What's in it for me? Recognition of prior learning in enterprise-based registered training organisations

By Kaaren Blom, Berwyn Clayton, Andrea Bateman, Marie Bedggood, Elvie Hughes Research report 6 October 2004 ISBN 1 920895 95 7 print; 1 920895 96 5 web

Description

Recognition of prior learning is a crucial element in lifelong learning, but limited information exists about skills recognition implementation and outcomes within Australian enterprises. This study examines the nature of recognition within individual enterprises, including the processes employed, strategies in place for promotion and support, and perceived benefits for enterprises and employees. It finds a 'one-size-fits-all' approach to recognition of prior learning is rarely effective, but should be linked to the enterprise's overall business and training plans, which ensures it evolves as part of the organisations' needs. For enterprises, recognition of prior learning offers whole-of-organisation benefits, including confirmation of employees' skills and corporate information developed over time, and greater training efficiencies. Employees reveal both personal and organisational benefits, such as having existing personal skills recognised and certified, identifying skill gaps, and achieving nationally recognised and portable qualifications which are recognised outside the enterprise.

Summary

About the research

  • The six enterprises and their employees involved in this study provided significant information about how the recognition of prior learning process can operate within enterprise-based training organisations. They demonstrate that a 'one size fits all' approach is inappropriate in developing such recognition processes.
  • The place of recognition of prior learning in the enterprise's overall business and training plans will always evolve according to the needs of the organisation. Recognition is therefore part of broader organisational processes, including the enterprise's assessment and training agenda.
  • The recognition processes within the enterprises studied were complex, requiring extensive infrastructure and a significant commitment to the process from all stakeholders. Where employees had a reasonable level of support in undertaking the process from their employer, there were rarely complaints about any aspects of it.
  • Enterprises see whole-of-organisation benefits in implementing recognition processes, which confirm employees' skills developed over a period of time and represent significant corporate knowledge. Working with limited training resources, recognition of prior learning enabled them to achieve training efficiencies. However, for business reasons, organisations sometimes require that all staff undertake specified training, and recognition processes are not allowed.
  • Employees see both organisational and personal benefits from the process. The benefits include: having existing personal skills recognised and certified; accessing a process that offered a high degree of flexibility; identifying skill gaps; achieving nationally recognised and portable qualifications which are recognised outside the enterprise; and having opportunities for networking with other staff within their organisations.

Executive summary

Recognition of prior learning is acknowledged as a crucial element in lifelong learning. It also plays a significant role in the development of training cultures within enterprises and as a mechanism to assist mature-age workers to obtain formal recognition and certification of skills gained through work, learning and life experiences. The extent of its importance has been stressed by the inclusion of a standard in the Australian Quality Training Framework standards for registered training organisations (ANTA 2001) which relates specifically to recognition. Standard 8.2(a) states that a registered training organisation is obliged to ensure that recognition of prior learning is offered to all applicants as part of the enrolment process. Furthermore, one of the Australian National Training Authority's overarching national initiatives outlined in A national marketing strategy for VET: Meeting client needs (ANTA 2000) is the simplification of recognition processes in order to, amongst other things, encourage the completion of qualifications in key industry sectors.

Recent Australian research has documented the practice and implementation of recognition of prior learning within public and private registered training organisations and across the various educational sectors. There is, however, only limited information about skills recognition implementation and outcomes within Australian enterprises. By investigating the practices, processes and benefits of recognition within a sample of enterprise-based registered training organisations, a fuller picture of skills recognition across the whole vocational education and training (VET) sector is possible.

To this end, six enterprises were invited to participate in this research. These were the Defence Learning Services Network, the Centrelink Virtual College, Santos, Telstra, and two organisations known in this report as the 'Emergency Services Agency' and the 'Public Utilities Company'. All enterprises are medium-to-large organisations with large workforces, often dispersed across Australia. All but Santos are registered training organisations, delivering training package qualifications under the Australian Qualifications Framework, ranging from lower-level certificates to diplomas and advanced diplomas. By contrast, Santos delivers customised training based on its own enterprise standards, and has elected to enter into a formal partnership with East Gippsland Institute of TAFE for purposes of training and assessment, rather than to become a registered training organisation in its own right.

The aims of this study were to investigate the nature of recognition within individual enterprises, the processes employed, the strategies in place for promotion and support of recognition, and the perceived benefits for individual employees and the organisation more broadly. A further goal was to determine the barriers and facilitators of recognition-why employees chose to engage or not to engage in the skills recognition process, given their expectations and the expectations of their organisation.

Information for the study was gathered using in-depth, semi-structured interviews. These were conducted with the managers responsible for training in each enterprise as well as with workplace assessors and employees.

The diverse nature of these enterprises meant that their training and recognition needs were quite disparate. All, however, had as their ultimate goal, improved productivity and enhanced business practice. The key incentives for these enterprises for establishing processes which allowed employees to have their prior learning, work and other relevant experiences recognised, included meeting quality system requirements and legislative imperatives. Working with limited training resources, these enterprises acknowledged the efficiencies that recognition enabled them to achieve. It was clearly evident to them that the training dollar would go further if it built upon current competence, and if unnecessary redundant training could be eliminated. The end product was likely to be a much better qualified enterprise workforce. These views echoed those widely expressed in the literature.

In a number of the enterprises, skills recognition was an organisation-wide undertaking, and considerable numbers of employees were engaged in the process. In other organisations, while it was promoted, it was left to the discretion of individual employees whether they took the opportunity to have their previous skills and learning formally recognised. Several enterprises indicated that, in instances where their organisation identified new knowledge and practices or enhancement of certain generic skills as being a priority for their business, training was mandated and skills recognition disallowed.

All the enterprises had established infrastructures to support the implementation of recognition processes, although the extent and sophistication of these varied from organisation to organisation. The better resourced the enterprise-based training provider was, the more extensive its support materials and strategies were. In all these enterprises, recognition was well established, and it was typical to find them offering some or all of the following services in support of the recognition process:

  • information sessions
  • printed information and guides for candidates
  • recognition workshops
  • provision of evidence requirements
  • provision of exemplars or guidelines for the types of evidence required
  • meetings between individual candidates and assessors
  • negotiated opportunities for recognition assessment to be undertaken.

The enterprises had established these processes not only to comply with the requirements of the Australian Quality Training Framework or other quality certification, but because they were convinced of the efficiencies their organisation could achieve if they set up system-wide support mechanisms for skills recognition.

Training and assessment managers considered that recognition had a firm place within the training and assessment activities of their enterprises, and strongly supported the concept of recognition as part of the national training agenda. There was widespread acknowledgement that the recognition process provided confirmation of employees' skills where they had been developed over long periods of time and represented significant corporate knowledge.

The benefits of skills recognition to the enterprise were also appreciated and understood by those employees who participated in this research. Some indicated that they felt that the enterprise stood to gain more than they did as individuals, although the majority saw the benefits as being mutual. Employee informants could readily cite many benefits of the recognition process, and these included:

  • having their existing skills recognised and certified
  • accessing a process which offered them a high degree of flexibility
  • identifying skills gaps
  • achieving nationally recognised and portable qualifications which were valued outside the enterprise, particularly when they were applying for other jobs
  • being introduced to new opportunities for networking within their organisations.

Employees expressed strongest satisfaction with recognition where they had experienced good support throughout the process, especially where they had been matched with mentors, or where assessors had made themselves available for consultation prior to conducting the recognition assessment. Aspects of recognition that were presented as having been problematic, such as the compilation of portfolios of evidence, tended to be viewed in this way in instances where employees had felt that they had been left to negotiate their own path through what was often a complex and time-consuming process. Where employees had received a reasonable level of support, there were rarely complaints about any aspect of the recognition process.

In these respects, it can be assumed that employees in enterprises are no different from their peers pursuing recognition in any other type of registered training organisation. Indeed, such responses support the analysis undertaken by Bateman and Knight in 2003, which noted that much of the criticism of recognition related more to the administrative processes and associated issues rather than to the concept of recognition itself. A number of employees participating in this study indicated that their main grievances with recognition were related to their disappointment that they could not apply for recognition for single units of competency, and that they could not be guaranteed promotion as an outcome of successful recognition.

What these observations highlight is the importance of widespread support in enterprises where recognition is being promoted and applied as a means of assessing and certifying the skills of employees. Some employees and some managers of assessment indicated that the benefits and importance of skills recognition were not always understood or supported by all other levels of management. If the promotion of recognition within enterprises is to be really effective, all stakeholders in the recognition process need to be identified and targeted, not only those who are potential candidates.

The enterprises and their employees involved in this study provided significant information about how recognition within enterprise-based recognised training organisations can operate. They were also very clear about 'what was in it for them'. As key players in vocational education and training, they demonstrated that a 'one size fits all' approach is inappropriate when it comes to recognition, and that the place of recognition in the enterprise's overall business and training plans will evolve according to the needs of the organisation.  

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