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Recognition of Prior Learning: RPL Perspectives from Down Under

Specialized programs give learners the opportunity to get in on the ground floor with potential employers, with national standards that guarantee those looking to fill positions will already have an understanding of credentials.
Specialized programs give learners the opportunity to get in on the ground floor with potential employers, with national standards that guarantee those looking to fill positions will already have an understanding of credentials.

Down under we have our equivalent of your Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) known to us as Recognition of Prior Learning or RPL.

I work for the New South Wales government in Australia, where we are a primary transport operator covering rail, buses, metro, transport infrastructure, etc. At Learning & Development – Transport for New South Wales (TfNSW), we are both an employer and an Enterprise Registered Training Organisation (ERTO), which means 95% of our learning offerings are directed to our employees. And while being closely aligned with our industry, we as an employer find multiple benefits in being deeply embedded within the industry. It also gives us a unique perspective on what we require as an employer in our current and future credentials, qualifications and skills for our employees.

RPL is widely used across Australia by our vocational, tertiary and higher education providers, and it is mandated within the standards (legislation) governing these institutions (universities) or Registered Training Providers (RTOs), vocational and tertiary training providers.

Like all things in life, some stuff you hate and other stuff you like. One thing I like about our system is that we have the frameworks in place to maintain consistency across all our states and territories. So, no matter where you live—when we say our qualifications are nationally transportable, we mean exactly that—your credentials are recognized anywhere in Australia by all employers and industries.

Our learners are guaranteed that any employer they go to with an industry qualification will have at least the same basic understanding of how their qualification applies in the industry.

Since 1992 we have had a system, upgraded periodically, with industry-based contained within an industry-specific training package. I operate both within the education and transport and distribution industry sectors, so both training packages apply to me.

Our national Australian Qualification Framework Policy (AQF) regulates our qualifications in the Australian education and training system. It was first introduced in 1995 to underpin the national system of qualifications encompassing higher education, vocational education and training (VET) and schools.

The AQF provides an integrated policy that comprises:

  • The learning outcomes for each AQF level and qualification type from level 1 (Certificate 1) to level 10 (Doctoral Degree)
  • The specifications for AQF application in accrediting and developing qualifications
  • The policy requirements for issuing AQF qualifications
  • The policy requirements for qualification linkages and student pathways
  • AQF qualifications and qualification pathways

We have also had two national regulators since 2011 who oversee accredited training. The first is the Australian Skills Quality Authority, more commonly known as ASQA, which regulates vocational education and training and post-secondary schooling and monitors and regulates qualification delivery from a certificate II level to level 6–advanced diploma, associate degree.

The second national regulator is the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA). This agency regulates tertiary or higher education and provides quality assurance for the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) level 5 (Diploma) to level 10, which includes degrees, bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, doctoral degrees and post-doctoral degrees.

These two regulators ensure a cohesive quality-assured system across all levels of education throughout Australia. They both take a risk-based approach to managing educational providers. TEQSA works with ASQA under a Memorandum of Understanding, documenting how the two regulators streamline their regulatory approach for multi-sector providers, which deliver education across various levels. Although the system is imperfect, it does ensure the learner has a consistent approach wherever they live and learn within Australia. The regulators offer both vocational and higher education providers with a minimum benchmark to meet when delivering learning. This benchmark means learning, training and assessment are, at minimum, attaining the expected quality level across the country, but all providers are encouraged to reach beyond it and deliver exceptional service.

Increasingly over that last 15 years, I have found that our universities are also coming on board with more flexible options, taking on delivery of higher-level vocational qualifications, as well as partnering with vocational providers to deliver the lower end of their university degrees. Their collaboration gives learners more choice on locations, delivery methods and learning pathways.

In relation to our RPL offered here, the regulators and our educational legislation ensure that RPL is offered to all candidates when they enroll at a learning institution, whether it be vocational, tertiary or higher ed. This model appears to differ from North America’s, where it is offered but does not appear to be compulsory.

During this process, the candidate is encouraged to complete a self-assessment against the qualification and units of competency to indicate whether they may require any gap training.

The RTO assessor then gathers supporting evidence from the candidate, especially evidence of formal or informal study and work experience.

The assessor brings in the candidate for an interview, so they can collect direct evidence of desired outcomes. They usually start with knowledge-based questions whose answers show how the candidate puts their current knowledge into practice in the workplace and assist in identifying gaps.

Finally, the assessor observes and documents the candidate demonstrating the skills and knowledge in the workplace, so they can witness the candidate’s standard of competency and measure it against workplace and industry expectations. Any task-based assessment must be robust enough to confirm the candidate’s competency and identify areas that still require skilling.

The RPL process like all other processes: When done well, it ensures our learners can be part of a rigorous assessment process. It is not a short cut to a qualification but rather an alternate assessment pathway. We are not delivering learning but assessing learning that has already taken place to meet the requirements of a competency outcome.

The Australian system also allows us to break down the whole qualification into skillsets, or options for selected subjects, multiple units specific to a particular industry, or employers that match the role descriptions within our workforce. Like your microcredentialing or stackable credentials, our qualifications sit inside a kind of broader portfolio called a training package.

Training packages specify the knowledge and skills required of individuals to perform effectively in the workplace, and they are expressed in units of competency. The packages also break down how units of competency can be packaged into nationally recognized and portable qualifications that comply with the AQF. These packages are developed by industry for industry, so we are effectively creating pathways into specific industries and building in career progression or lateral transfer across the same industry.

Training packages are used for a range of purposes but predominantly:

  • By training providers to design training curriculum tailored to support individual learner needs, as well as those of employers and industry
  • By employers to assist with workforce design, development and structure

Training packages consist of the following nationally endorsed training package products:

  • Units of competency, which specify the standard of performance required in the workplace
  • Assessment requirements (associated with each unit of competency)
  • Qualifications aligned to the AQF (certificate I to advanced diploma and graduate certificate to graduate diploma).

We are seeing a growing trend of cooperation between our VET training providers and universities. Rather than competing individually, they are collaborating to achieve a win-win situation for our students. This win-win situation if nothing else provides pathways that offer increased flexibility, modes of delivery and a different perspective to assist candidates in navigating their learning journey. For Australian learners, RPL is here to stay.


Australian Skills Quality Authority

Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency

Australian Qualification Framework

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