It is good to hear that both the minister of higher education and the South African Qualifications Authority acknowledge that the "recognition of prior learning" (RPL) is an essential aspect of an integrated post-school education and training system and they are committed to ensuring it is prioritised.
RPL has been official educational policy since 2002. It aimed to offer great aspirational possibilities for access to lifelong learning opportunities and for work mobility and promotion, but these have not really materialised. RPL is absent from our public further education and training (FET) colleges and very few students are admitted into higher education through RPL.
This is a serious problem when our country is in dire need of an appropriately educated and skilled youth and adult population that is employed in decent and meaningful work.
Sector education and training authority (Seta) funding for RPL is one area where some progress has been made, especially in helping experienced insurance agents, financial advisers and real estate agents to meet new quality assurance requirements and register as professionals in their fields.
There are other pockets of good RPL practice that have made a very real difference to people's lives and to their communities. John Kiewits grew up in Elsies River, Cape Town, in the 1970s and 1980s. He was the second youngest of four brothers who were supported by his mother's meagre earnings as a domestic worker. Life was hard and his prospects looked bleak.
To give him a better chance, he was sent to relatives in Calitzdorp to complete his schooling, but he became demotivated and failed grade 10 after being told that he was not going to make anything of his life.
He found a job as a delivery vehicle assistant and started his own spaza shop as a sideline shortly afterwards. He migrated into construction work and from there into doing electrical maintenance and installations. As a part-time artist, he would even sell his art to generate more income, all the while involving himself in community outreach projects.
In 2006 he heard about the RPL programme at the University of the Western Cape, enrolled for the RPL portfolio development course and was accepted into the law faculty in 2007. Studying part-time and having to become fluent in English and legal English fast, he managed to complete his LLB in 2011 as one of the top students in the faculty.
He threw himself into a master's degree in law, achieving this in one year, despite also working as a tutor to undergraduate law students. He never forgot the support he got from the RPL team and, in turn, gave of his own time throughout his studies to be a peer facilitator and mentor of other RPL candidates.
Now 40, Kiewits is serving his articles to become an advocate and continues to serve his community. His lifelong passion for human rights, and to help others wherever he can, will ensure that he becomes a worthy member of the legal profession.
But there are many more people like him who deserve a second chance at education and can make a huge difference in society, and yet who have encountered only obstacles along their way.
The ministerial task team on RPL, appointed last year to develop a national strategy for the wide-scale implementation of RPL in the post-school education and training system, recently submitted its recommendations, as did the reference group that has been working with the South African Qualifications Authority to amend RPL policy.
These groups have had broad stakeholder representation and have made sound recommendations, but the minister must now apply himself with vigour to implementation.
Adequate resourcing and funding have always formed one of the biggest barriers to RPL implementation. RPL is a complex process: it is not a simple assessment of a candidate's experiential knowledge that is presented in a portfolio of evidence.
Research and practice in South Africa in the past 10 years have shown that RPL needs different approaches in different contexts and for different purposes. Candidates need thorough career advice and counselling as well as extensive support to help them to identify the relevant knowledge and skills they have acquired through life and work experience and the language to translate this into the specialised language of the academy or qualification.
RPL requires expert educators to help candidates to make sense of the process and navigate their way across these knowledge and language boundaries, all of which comes at a cost of time and resources.
But public FET colleges and universities have received no state funding for RPL. According to the South African Qualifications Authority, resources must cover the "training of RPL advisers, facilitators, pedagogues (mediators), assessors, moderators and administrators, as well as hidden costs such as advising, guiding and facilitating, teaching towards assessment, assessment and moderation processes, quality assurance and research and development".
It is very important that RPL targets be set for FET colleges and universities, and that these institutions are given incentives — because they are unlikely to respond otherwise. They are urgently needed to give a second chance to the huge numbers of young people who have fallen through the cracks of our school education system.
Fears that allowing people into higher education through the RPL route would lower standards have proved to be unfounded. On the contrary, evidence is that successful RPL candidates tend to outperform students who have met universities' traditional entry criteria.
Another huge barrier has been articulation and progression on the national qualifications framework. For instance, somebody who has achieved an occupational qualification through an RPL route, or for a certain number of credits towards the qualification, is not guaranteed being able to build on this to study further.
As more and more reputable online courses and qualifications become available, such as those offered by Yale and Harvard universities, and more and more applicants with knowledge gained through these forms of learning apply to study at our universities, solving this problem will become even more urgent.
The outdated human resources policies in many workplaces that thwart RPL graduates are another concern. For example, one major South African insurance company insists that all applicants for employment must have a matric certificate, but this automatically disqualifies any university graduates who were admitted through RPL, no matter what tertiary qualifications they may have.
Human resources and labour relations policies and practices in all sectors must align with RPL policy and its underpinning rationale of equity and social justice. That is, there must be no distinction between qualifications awarded through conventional or RPL routes.
The national RPL strategy now being promoted must recognise different types of learning, including formal, non-formal and informal; everyday knowledge and skills; practical wisdom; and indigenous knowledge.
RPL must be taken to scale: we cannot afford not to. "Important lessons have been learned … [and] islands of excellent practice need to be bridged and expanded to a fully fledged RPL system that is integrated with the education and training system in the country," as the South African Qualifications Authority said in December. But this requires determined political will and leadership, and we encourage the minister to build immediately on the groundwork he has initiated.
Barbara Jones works in the division for lifelong learning at the
University of the Western Cape