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Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning in the United Kingdom(1)

John Konrad(2)

School of Education and Professional Development(3), Leeds Metropolitan University, UK

Working paper, September 2001



The process of enabling individuals to gain credit for learning outside the formal system of education and training has developed in the UK over the last ten years in parallel with the introduction of system of National Standards in vocational training and a modular credit system in Higher Education. These developments have taken on wider potential importance with agreement on a common Framework of Qualifications in Higher Education [based on the Bologna Declaration(4)] as reflected in the National Qualifications Frameworks for the UK [covering England & Wales, and Scotland(5)]. Current practice has significant strengths and weaknesses and these are documented in a recent research report(6) to which reference will be made at the end of this paper. Some implications for the development of APEL are identified.

The UK National System of Vocational Qualifications

This reform of vocational training was originally concerned with improving the transition from school to work through a modernised apprenticeship system based on national levels of competence within recognised occupations(7). Much of this system of National Vocational Qualifications(8) in England and Wales has been subject to serious criticism(9) and the process of its reform is continuing. APEL is referred to in this context by the UK Department for Education and Skills (10)

Another strand in this development was to encourage employers to support their employees to gain recognition of their skills by acquiring qualifications through the process of Accreditation of Prior Learning(11), which would form part of the development of "Learning Organisations" which would be recognised through a National Quality Assurance Standard Investors in People(12). NVQs are based on national standards, which describe the expected performance of an individual in a work role. They focus on the required outcomes rather than on the processes or tasks the individual is required to complete. By using outcomes, they can be tied very closely to the industrial and commercial needs of organisations. ... NVQs and SVQs are based on the nationally agreed standards of competence. The standards are combined into units of competence. Individuals achieve NVQs and SVQs by accumulating these units. ... There are five levels of qualification. The definitions of these are given below(13):

Level 1 - competence in the performance of a range of varied work activities, most of which may be routine and predictable.

Level 2 - competence in a significant range of varied work activities, performed in a variety of contexts. Some of the activities are complex or non-routine, and there is some individual responsibility or autonomy. Collaboration with others, perhaps through membership of a work group or team, may often be a requirement.

Level 3 - competence in a broad range of varied work activities performed in a wide variety of contexts, most of which are complex and non-routine. There is considerable responsibility, autonomy, and control or guidance of others is often required.

Level 4 - competence in a broad range of complex, technical or professional work activities performed in a wide variety of contexts and with a substantial degree of personal responsibility and autonomy. Responsibility for the work of others and the allocation of resources is often present.

Level 5 - competence, which involves the application of a significant range of fundamental principles and complex techniques across a wide and often unpredictable variety of contexts. Very substantial personal autonomy and, often, significant responsibility for the work of others and for the allocation of substantial resources feature strongly, as do personal accountabilities for analysis and diagnosis, design, planning, execution and evaluation.

Accreditation of Prior Experience and Learning [APEL]

"APEL is the accreditation of prior experiential learning, that is, the award of credit for learning based on prior experience -- from work, community or volunteer experience -- which has not previously been assessed and/or awarded credit. By converting informal learning into certificated learning, APEL provides cost-effective routes to qualifications. It has potential significance for people who, through life and work experience, have learned knowledge, skills and analytical abilities that are comparable to those in a higher education award. APEL offers the possibility for what learners know to be recognised, assessed with the same rigour as any other learning would be at HE level, and awarded credit." (Learning from Experience Trust 2000:1).

This process involves students who have gained knowledge, skills and abilities in different walks of life successfully claiming to equate these achievements with learning delivered in modules and accounted for in numbers of credits (normally in UK points which are equivalent to double the value of European Credits). Most of this provision is based in the New Universities (which prior to 1992 were Polytechnics) and has had a significant degree of acceptability.

"Unfortunately, whilst paying lip service to learner-centred learning through the supposed flexibility of modular systems and CATS, universities seem to be moving towards a mass production model where there is little scope for this type of development and where individual students are expected to fit in and conform for the sake of efficiency and for the purposes of 'quality control'. At the same time lecturers are hanging on to old-fashioned ideas of ownership of knowledge and their sole right to dispense it as they see fit. It is not surprising therefore that APEL has made little impact and barely receives a mention in government and institution documents on lifelong learning. If lifelong learning is to be meaningful for those who are expected to participate in it and learners are genuinely to take '...increased ownership of their own learning and its management throughout life.'(Fryer 1997) a different culture needs to be established, one in which the contribution individual learners bring to the group learning situation and to the institution is recognised, valued and accommodated as an integral part of the academic process." (Peters et al 1999)

This view may be unduly pessimistic. Over the last ten years some 30 regional accreditation networks (Open College Networks) have developed which provide increasingly accessible community-based assessment of learning at levels that are broadly related to those identified above as NVQ Levels 1 to 3. These activities enable individuals in community groups to accredit their chosen areas of lifelong learning against a nationally recognised framework. (Prescott, 1997)

The accreditation of prior experience and learning at University level is of increasing importance as institutions address the operational issues surrounding entry to awards posed by the lifelong learning agenda(14).

How are mid-career students admitted onto courses when they have few formal qualifications?

How do institutions give credit for forms of learning which have not been previously accredited or which do not come within more traditional accreditation processes - for example learning that arises from life or vocational experiences?

These issues have led to formal accreditation structures within schemes and programmes. For example, accreditation may be delegated to a Scheme approvals board (at the level of a School/Department) which will expect to see evidence covering: the nature of the experiences for which credit is sought; evidence, direct or indirect, to substantiate the experiences; the nature, scope and magnitude of experiences in terms of the learning that occurred; the relationship of the learning to the award or programme for which entry or advanced standing is being sought.

Approval boards then evaluate the evidence typically in terms of:

Credit may simply allow entry onto the beginning of an award or entry with advanced standing.

Alongside these broad operational criteria, institutions have developed rules affecting the maximum amount of credit that can be claimed towards an identified award. So, for example, it may be that the maximum credit that can be allowed towards a first degree is the first two levels (or years for full-time students) - leaving level three to be completed by formal registration and study within the university. (Shaw and Green, 1999)

This is particularly useful when considering professionals who have a second cycle qualification below a full degree. In the writer's School this concept is being developed into a "European degree for VET professionals" through an ERASMUS Curriculum Development project(15).

Current research in the field and its wider implications

The UK study already referred to has identified that APEL can:

1) Make an important contribution to the development of flexible learning in higher education;

2) Support the development of partnerships between Universities and employers;

3) Provide a more rapid response to employment changes such as the "new" or knowledge-based labour market, than can be achieved with taught courses;

4) Promote Lifelong Learning by facilitation the recognition of the learning that takes place in the workplace and in non-formal and informal education.

There are however significant barriers to the expansion of APEL beyond the current small numbers of students (currently under 100 per University per year) and to ensure that it is available across all Universities. The research also confirms that APEL is often practised in the relatively narrow part of the curriculum concerned with Continuing Professional Development and partnerships with large corporate organisation(16) in both the public and private sectors. (Learning from Experience Trust 2000:1-3) In this case, not only does APEL reach a minority of University provision but also a minority of the labour market where the majority are employed by Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). Although it is beyond the scope of this paper, there is an interesting experience in French Universities where the recognition of acquired skills (la Validation des Acquis Professionnelles [VAP]) has developed through statutory provision and appears to avoid these issues(17).

A more fundamental critique is that the current literature is under-theorised lacking any systematic relationship to modern approaches to adult learning, especially constructivism and situated learning(18).

In the light of the analysis in this paper, there are considerable grounds for caution in drawing on the UK experience. A number of current and future European projects are working in this area, but there is little evidence of the systematic research necessary to ensure that the potential of APEL is realised in practice.


Commission of the European Communities (2000),

A Memorandum on Lifelong Learning, Brussels, SEC (2000) 1832.

Franklin K (1997),

"National Vocational Qualifications, Scottish Vocational Qualifications and Competence-based Education and Training: from de Ville to Beaumont" Journal of Vocational Education and Training, 49, 4, 511-530

Fryer R.H. (1997),

"Learning for the Twenty-First Century" First report of the National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning, London, Department for Education & Employment. Available at: (Last visited August 2001)

Harris J (2000),

"Revisioning the boundaries of learning theory in the assessment of prior experiential learning (APEL)", Paper presented at SCUTREA, 30th Annual Conference. Available from: (last visited August 2001)

Konrad J (2000),

"Assessment and Verification of National Vocational Qualifications: policy and practice", Journal of Vocational Education and Training, 52, 2, 225-242

Learning from Experience Trust (2000),

MAPPING APEL: Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning in English Higher Education Institutions, London, ISBN No.: 1-870529-30-8

Peters H et al. (1999),

"Fitting in: what place is accorded to the experiential learning mature students bring with them to Higher Education", Paper presented at SCUTREA, 29th Annual Conference, 5-7 July 1999, University of Warwick. Available at (Last visited August 2001)

Prescott N (1997),

"The South Tyneside accreditation project: a route to lifelong learning", Education + Training, 39, 2

Romaniuk K and Snart F (2000),

"Enhancing employability: the role of prior learning assessment and portfolios" Journal of Workplace Learning, 12, 1.

Shaw M and Green H (1999),

"Continuous professional development: emerging trends in the UK", Quality Assurance in Education, 7, 3



1. This working paper is a development from that delivered in Workshop 2 of the International Seminar on Credit Accumulation & Transfer November 2000 in Leiria, Portugal with Professor Michel Feutrie in the Chair. It is developed from my presentation « La validation des acquis des compétences au Royaume Uni » at 5e Biennale de l'éducation et de la formation, Avril 2000, Paris-La Sorbonne. (I am grateful to Madeline Arrii of CIBC de Vaucluse and Professor Bernard Liétard of CNAM for their introduction to salient aspects of the French system which places great emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge, and their patience with my questions about the system.)

2. See

3. See

4. Described at and (in Italian); see also the Project Description 'TUNING' Educational Structures in Europe at; there is also a SOCRATES project Acknowledgement of Prior Experiential Learning, which is co-ordinated by the University of Warwick (UK) and has partners in Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden. See: (last visited August 2001)

5. Available from (last visited August 2001)

6. Learning from Experience Trust (2000), MAPPING APEL: Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning in English Higher Education Institutions, London, ISBN No.: 1-870529-30-8

7. A system based on agreed standards of skill appropriate to the jobs available

8. Scotland has a system of Scottish Vocational Qualifications [SVQs], which whilst they share common origins with NVQs, diverged significantly in operation, even before the recent devolution of powers to a Scottish parliament and executive.

9. For example: "The conclusion that may be drawn from the above analysis is that the development of the NCVQ model of competence-based qualifications represented a flawed model where a small group of enthusiasts seemed to have been unable to consider the fundamental methodological and ideological critiques of the approach. That is not, however, to say that the idea of competence-based qualifications is similarly flawed, merely that any discussion of such an approach needs to consider the issue systematically and without predetermined assumptions." (Konrad 1998) Franklin (1997) provides a largely favourable review of developments up to 1995.

10. "The Member States of the European Union have agreed to participate in a Europe-wide consultation on lifelong learning. In the UK, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are undertaking separate but linked consultations, which will lead to a consolidated UK response. The focus of the consultation is a Memorandum on Lifelong Learning produced by the European Commission to encourage debate on important issues of lifelong learning strategy and implementation." See and (last visited August 2001)

11. This term derives from the NVQ Unit D36 Advise and Support Candidates to Identify Prior Achievement; in the new Standards, this will be L27 Support Work-based Assessment. For details, see Essentially it involves acquisition of credit through the collection of evidence of performance and knowledge against the criteria provided by a Unit or Units of an NVQ. In the formal framework of the system, an individual is entitled to seek advice from a qualified advisor to draw up an assessment plan, which will meet the requirements of the chosen Unit(s). This will normally involve the collection of historical evidence of performance and knowledge, subject to the requirement that the evidence should be authentic and valid and capable of demonstrating that the person is currently competent against the standards of the Unit(s). This evidence will involve producing a range of evidence drawn principally from the workplace, which meets the requirements of the above table in order to validate the competencies identified in the Unit(s).

12. It has been argued that APL is based on a number of principles. First, that learning occurs across the lifespan. Second, that learning takes place in various contexts, including formal, informal, and non-formal. Third, that formal learning is not necessarily of greater significance than learning gained through other contexts. Fourth, that formal learning objectives can be used to reliably assess learning gained through other contexts. And finally, that when equivalent to formal learning, learning gained through other contexts should be recognised. (Romaniuk and Snart, 2000)

13. This system will probably require review in the light of the proposed structure of higher education qualifications described in (last visited August 2001). The full National Framework (January 2001) is available at (last visited August 2001)

14. These issues now have a much higher profile following COMMISSION OF THE EUROPEAN COMMUNITIES (2000), A Memorandum on Lifelong Learning, Brussels, SEC (2000) 1832. Each member state is undertaking its own consultation on this important document. The process for the UK is described at: (last visited August 2001)

15. The outcomes of this project are available at (last visited August 2001)

16. For example, see the description of the 'themed MBA programme' between the University of Surrey and BAA plc reported in Gray D (1999), "Work-based learning, Action Learning and the Virtual Paradigm", Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research.Available from: (last visited August 2001)

17. See for example, Ministère de l'éducation nationale de la recherché et de la technologie, La validation des acquis professionnels: Bilan et Perspectives 1994/1997 at: (last visited August 2001)

18. "Much APEL literature is advocatory, descriptive and/or prescriptive. There is little literature explaining and theorising the practice, and even less problematising existing theorisations. Understandings of learning theory (beyond experiential learning) remain somewhat limited even as fresh approaches have developed elsewhere." Harris J (2000), "Re-visioning the boundaries of learning theory in the assessment of prior experiential learning (APEL)", Paper presented at SCUTREA, 30th Annual Conference.Available from: (last visited August 2001)


This document was added to the Education-line database on 18 September 2001