There is no legal right for past learning to be accredited in the United Kingdom nor is there any specific national or regional policy to encourage it. Universities are highly autonomous and it is up to each one to decide its own regulations, policy and practice, so the overall picture is mixed. There is guidance on practice in the UK Quality Code for Higher Education (Quality Assurance Agency 2013) but no requirement for universities to formally act upon it. The most recent survey of Validation practices in the UK was conducted by Atlay and Turnbull (2017). Although the authors report increasing practice, the majority of respondents (78%) reported it as either constant, declining or did not know if it was changing. A previous large scale study conducted in England in the late 1990s by Merrifield, MacIntyre and Osaigbovo (2000) found occasional ‘islands’ of practice. A 2013 survey by Souto-Otero confirms this pattern. Pokorny (2011) suggests it is largely confined to Health and Work based learning departments.

Atlay and Turnbull did not ask respondents if the regulations permit the recognition of past learning as it seems the majority do. There are some exceptions to this pattern, including notably the Open University. It seems most universities have the theoretical capability to recognise past learning but they often fail to develop the practical means to do so. Nor are they very adept at advertising the potential for recognition. A 2009 study of 166 HEI websites in England, Wales and Northern Ireland found that only 11% had relevant information which was ‘easy to find, useful and well presented’ (Hawley 2010, p. 15).

All UK surveys and most surveys of practice conclude there is far greater scope for the use of accreditation but that there are numerous barriers. Travers (2012) provides an excellent short history of practice in the US where practice is far more widespread from which three differences with the UK can be discerned:

  • A much earlier start, from the 1930s compared with the 1980s in the UK
  • Post war Federal legislation to encourage practice, specifically aimed to enable returning GIs to access higher education programmes. There has never been legislation in the UK.
  • A national charitable foundation– the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) founded in the 1970s to promote practice. A UK equivalent founded in 1986, the Learning from Experience Trust (LET) did much to promote practice but has been moribund for several years.

Other significant barriers to adoption identified by Atlay and Turnbull focus on low awareness and understanding. Their analysis did not attempt to quantify practice so their conclusions are limited. Research elsewhere has institutional mission and inflexibility in the curriculum as a significant factor affecting practice. Longer established, more research intensive universities are the least likely to recognise past learning (Hoffman et al 2009; Pitman and Vidovich 2013). Inflexibility in the curriculum often results from the requirement to meet programme and module learning outcomes (Whitaker et al 2011; Cooper and Harris 2013). Learning outcomes are an essential component of a credit system as they enable the defining of what is learned. The problem is their over-prescriptive use so that in almost all cases the student’s past learning is inconsistent with learning outcomes (Anderson, Fejes and Ahn 2004). Given the lack of interest by UK policy makers there appears little immediate prospect of increased practice.

Sep 17, 2019 @ 10:35

References (All accessed in May 2018)

  • Anderson, P., Fejes, E. and Ahn, S-E (2004) Recognition of prior vocational learning in Sweden, Studies in the Education of Adults, 36 (1): 57-71
  • Atlay, M. and  Turnbull, W. (2017) Aspects of credit practice in English and Welsh universities, Oxford: UK Credit Forum.
  • Cooper, L. and Harris, J. (2013) Recognition of prior learning: The ‘knowledge question’, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 32(4): 447-463
  • Hawley, J. (2010) European inventory on Validation of Non-formal and Informal learning 2010: Country report (England, Wales and Northern Ireland), Thessaloniki, CEDEFOP:
  • Hoffmann, T., Travers, N. L., Evans, M. and Treadwell, A. (2009). Researching critical factors impacting PLA programs: A multi-institutional study on best practices. CAEL Forum and News, September.
  • Merrifield, J., MacIntyre, D., &  Osaigbovo, R. (2000) Changing but not changed: Mapping APEL in English Higher Education, London: Learning from Experience Trust
  • Pitman, T. and Vidovich, L. (2013) Converting RPL into academic capital: Lessons from Australian universities, International Journal of Lifelong Education 32 (4), 501-517.
  • Pokorny, H. (2011) ‘APEL research in English higher education’, in J. Harris, J.,  Wihak, C. & Breier, M. (Eds.), Researching prior learning. Leicester: National Institute for Adult Continuing Education, 106-206
  • Souto-Otero, M. (2013) Review of credit accumulation and transfer policy and practice in UK higher education, York: Higher Education Academy.
  • Travers, N. L. (2011) United States of America: PLA research in colleges and universities. In J. Harris, C. Wihak, and M. Breier (Eds.), Researching prior learning. Leicester: National Institute for Adult Continuing Education, pp. 248-283.
  • Quality assurance Agency (2013) UK Quality code for higher education- Chapter B6, Assessment of students and the recognition of past learning,
  • Whittaker, R., Brown, J., Benske, K. & Hawthorne, M. (2011) Streamlining RPL processes: facilitating the award of credit for prior informal learning, FINAL REPORT. Glasgow, Scotland, UK: Glasgow Caledonian University.
  • For a summary of Atlay and Turnbull (2017) go to

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