Understanding RPL

“Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) in South Africa has, unlike similar initiatives in other countries, a very specific agenda. RPL is meant to support transformation of the education and training system of the country. This calls for an approach to the development of RPL policy and practices that explicitly addresses the visible and invisible barriers to learning and assessment. Such an approach must generate the commitment of all role players to remove these barriers and to build a visible, usable and credible system as an effective and creative vehicle for lifelong learning. It is important that consensus be generated around the criteria and support systems within which the integrity and quality of all assessments will be protected.” SAQA RPL policy (2002, p. 11).

Definition of RPL

“Recognition of prior learning means the comparison of the previous learning and experience of a learner howsoever obtained against the learning outcomes required for a specified qualification, and the acceptance for purposes of qualification of that which meets the requirements.” National Standards Bodies Regulations (no. 18787 of 28 March 1998)

This means that regardless of where, when or how a person achieved the learning, if such learning meets the requirements of a unit standard or a qualification (or part thereof), it could be recognised for credits. In this sense, RPL is an important principle of the NQF. RPL also involves an assessment process of preparing for RPL, engaging with RPL candidates, gathering evidence, judging evidence, giving feedback and reporting results.

Purposes of RPL

The “Criteria and Guidelines for the Implementation of Recognition of Prior Learning”, opted 13 August 2003, indicate that the purpose of RPL could include access and appropriate placement at a particular level at an institution, granting advanced status, advanced standing, crediting and certifying learners for unit standards or the parts of the qualification where all the requirements have been met, or depending on the context, a combination of these. It should also be noted that the NSB Regulations make it clear that a learner could achieve a qualification wholly or in part through the process of RPL. Furthermore, RPL could be used to establish whether people meet minimum requirements for entry to a job.

Process of RPL and status of recognition through RPL

The SAQA RPL policy states: “there is no fundamental difference in the assessment of previously acquired skills and knowledge and the assessment of skills and knowledge acquired through a current learning programme. The candidate seeking credits for previously acquired skills and knowledge must still comply with all the requirements as stated in unit standards and qualifications. The difference lies in the route to the assessment” (SAQA, 2002: 8).

All assessment involves the gathering and judging of evidence provided by and/or about the candidate in relation to agreed criteria, regardless of whether the candidate is a recent learner or developed their skills, knowledge, understanding, attitudes and values in the past. Assessors are required to uphold the principles of currency, sufficiency, authenticity, reliability and validity of evidence. Credits awarded through an RPL process are therefore just as valid as credits awarded through any other assessment process. The emphasis on RPL is brought about by the need for recognition in assessment practice of evidence from prior learning activities that may have been negated in the past or were simply not considered as evidence for various reasons. In addition, many providers of training and assessment only offer assessments based on their learning programme. A person seeking RPL will not necessarily attend the full learning programme and will therefore require assessment that is not dependent on a particular learning programme, but one that recognises broadly equivalent skills and knowledge as reflected holistically in the relevant unit standard(s) or qualification.

The Benefits of RPL


  • Formal recognition of learning (skills, competencies, expertise and knowledge) in order to gain competence
  • Credits awarded for past informal learning
  • Access to a unit standard or qualification based on the informal learning or experience that a person has acquired
  • Improved job opportunities within the same area of work or in different areas
  • No need to learn something twice if competency can be proved
  • Opportunity for further development and a career path
  • Higher self-esteem or self-confidence


  • Recognising informal training will help to identify the actual education and training needs and lead to better planning for the development of employees
  • Better planning and more effective use of budget for education and training
  • More effective utilization and placement of employees
  • Increase in productivity and profit margins if employees are better placed and utilized
  • Greater competitiveness with a better qualified work force
  • Lower levels of staff turn-over and absenteeism as a result of greater job satisfaction
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