Recognition of prior learning (RPL) is a key mechanism for redressing past injustices by recognizing knowledge, skills and competences gained through experience and practical workplace learning (DHET, 2013). RPL refers to the principles and processes through which the prior knowledge and skills of a person are made visible, mediated and assessed for the purposes of alternative access and admission, recognition and certification, or further learning and development (SAQA, 2014). Within this context, RPL is a key feature for insuring an inclusive, democratic education and training system and lifelong learning culture in South Africa.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 2007) described the RPL strategy in South Africa as having ‘islands of excellence’. The plan for the next five years is to develop RPL so that, instead of islands of excellence, a fully-fledged national system of excellent practice exists.
RPL as driver of opportunity
As part of the education and training system, RPL plays an important role in increasing employability, reskilling and bridging the inequality divide in South Africa. The South African Qualifications Authority identifies two components of RPL: (1) access and (2) credit (SAQA, 2013).
- Access refers to alternative access routes into learning programmes that offer registered qualifications or part-qualifications. It increases opportunities for learners who do not meet formal entry requirements.
- Credit refers to credits awarded, leading to a registered qualification.
Both access and credit involve recognition of learning obtained through informal or non-formal means, thereby addressing social injustice and expanding pathways to accessing formal learning. The awarding of credits further aids learners’ progression through the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) by expediting the time spent in further education.
National standards, policy and framework activity
RPL in post-apartheid South Africa operates as part of the South African NQF that came into effect with the passing of the SAQA Act of 1995 (South Africa, 1995). The SAQA Act was then replaced by the NQF Act 67 of 2008 (South Africa, 2008), which further strengthened the role of SAQA and introduced innovative changes to the South African NQF. The South African NQF is a single integrated system comprising three coordinated qualifications sub-frameworks. A quality council (QC) is assigned to each of these frameworks as follows:
- The Council for Quality Assurance in General and Further Education and Training (Umalusi) oversees general and further education and training qualifications.
- The Council on Higher Education (CHE) manages higher education qualifications.
- The Quality Council for Trades and Occupations (QCTO) oversees occupational qualifications.
SAQA is mandated to advance the objectives of the NQF, oversee its development and implementation, and coordinate its sub-frameworks.
In line with NQF Act 67, the Ministry of Higher Education and Training determines the overarching national policy on RPL that frames the policies and guidelines developed by SAQA, the QCs and relevant stakeholders. The policies and criteria put forward by SAQA follow consultation with the QCs; these councils then advance said policies and criteria for their own sub-frameworks, aligning them with the overarching guidelines and adopting them in their education and training institutions.
No distinction is made for certificates received through RPL; however, the Ministry of Higher Education and Training, SAQA, QCs and relevant stakeholders play a key role in assuring quality in RPL procedures and processes. The national policy for the implementation of RPL identifies quality assurance as:
- establishing and adhering to policies, standards, processes and associated practices;
- increasing standardized practices within sectors, as a single approach does not necessarily work across different contexts;
- adhering to generally agreed upon quality assurance principles, including qualified personnel, fitness for purpose, transparency and fair outcomes;
- safeguarding the integrity of RPL processes and outcomes.
The South African NQF encourages the achievement of qualifications through RPL. Some stakeholders have recognized this by posting RPL records on the SAQA National Learners’ Records Database (NLRD). As of May 2016, the database showed that 26,379 learners obtained 28,969 qualifications through RPL (some learners received more than one qualification through RPL). The most popular sectors attracting RPL candidates according to this information were:
- Manufacturing, engineering and technology (35 per cent);
- Business, commerce and management (20 per cent);
- Physical panning and construction (17 per cent).
Although SAQA works closely to encourage the uploading of RPL records onto the NLRD, up-to-date data is often not available.
Challenges and solutions to successful RPL implementation
Within the quality assurance context, SAQA assists both public and private providers of RPL. The barriers to the implementation of RPL are both conceptual and practical.
- Conceptual barriers refer to society’s understanding of what knowledge is and which knowledge counts (perceived value of workplace knowledge versus academic knowledge), power relationships associated with disciplines (academic and vocational) and their boundaries, and the false notion that one RPL size fits all. Consistent advocacy and organisational development are needed to overcome these barriers, as is ongoing support to encourage RPL within organizations.
- The main practical barrier is funding. Funding at an organizational and individual level is a critical aspect that contributes to successful implementation of RPL. Practical barriers at an individual level refer to attitudes and motivation of individuals responsible for RPL processes within an organization such as: the absence of an effective RPL driving mechanism within an organization; the lack of understanding of the importance of RPL for candidates and a lack of co-operation due to personal expectations and unsatisfactory conditions for encouraging RPL in the workplace. Discussions to motivate, inform and direct actions are required to drive an RPL process successfully.
To address some of these challenges, the Ministry of Higher Education and Training published a national strategy for the wide-scale implementation of RPL (South Africa, 2016). The strategy proposes legislating for and establishing a national RPL coordinating and sustainable funding mechanism for RPL implementation. The DHET is also engaging in a national drive to workshop all interested parties to guide the establishment of RPL centres. SAQA and the three QCs continue to advocate the implementation of RPL with the relevant stakeholders and encourage the data uploads of RPL achievements for recording on the NLRD.
DHET (Department of Higher Education and Training). 2013. White Paper for Post-school Education and Training. Building an expanded, effective and integrated post-school system. Pretoria, Department of Higher Education and Training.
OECD. 2007. SAQA Country Report 2007. Paris, OECD
South Africa. 2008. National Qualifications Framework Act No. 67 of 2008. Pretoria, Government South Africa.
South Africa. 2016. Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) Coordination Policy. Government Gazette Vol.609 No. 39876. Pretoria, Government of South Africa.
SAQA (South African Qualifications Authority) 2014. NQF Glossary of Terms. Pretoria, South African Qualifications Authority.
SAQA. 2013. National Policy for the Implementation of the Recognition of Prior Learning. Pretoria, South African Qualifications Authority.
Joe Samuels and Coleen Jaftha
South African Qualifications Authority
 NQF Act 67 was passed in 2008 and came into effect on 1 June 2009.
 The NLRD is an electronic management information system of the NQF under the authority of SAQA. It contains records of qualifications, part-qualifications, learner achievements, recognized professional bodies, professional designations and all related information such as registrations and accreditations.