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How the university of life can lead to serious academic credentials

Recognition of prior learning acknowledges the skills people have gained outside formal education settings – be it through work experiences, training, volunteering or in daily life

Nothing beats experience – except perhaps getting academic recognition for it. That’s precisely the opportunity recognition of prior learning (RPL) offers.

If you’ve got experience in a particular field, and specific skills built up over a number of years, RPL can be a stepping stone to and through university, providing a pathway that may see your knowledge recognised and rewarded within a higher education qualification.

It is part of a suite of innovative tools breaking down the barriers to entry to third level – and beyond – for an increasing number of people.

“Recognition of prior learning (RPL) has actually been around for years. It’s not a new thing in further or higher education,” explains Grace Edge, director of the national recognition of prior learning at the Technological Higher Education Association. “It recognises what we know, what we understand, and can do.”


Edge is working on a project funded by the Higher Education Authority (HEA), to ensure RPL is embedded and expanded across Ireland’s universities, allowing people to have their experience recognised at some level under the national qualifications framework (NQF), from a level 6 certificate to level 10 doctoral degrees.

Why apply for RPL?

Applying for RPL can advance your academic progress enabling you to start in the second year of a four-year course. In addition, people who don’t hold a level 8 degree, for example, may still be able to access a level 9 postgraduate programme, if they can evidence learning equivalent to a level 8.

“It eliminates the duplication of learning. It means you don’t have to start again from scratch or retrace your steps. With RPL you can come into education at the appropriate point, relative to the learning you have,” says Edge.

As such it can save you money and time, but the real advantage is that it captures and recognises the extent of the learning we all gain informally, through our lived experience and careers.

Typically, there are three kinds of prior learning that count in your favour when applying for RPL, including whatever formal, classroom-based learning you already have, which has already been certified or accredited in some way.

But it also includes non-formal and informal learning, such as training courses undertaken in the workplace or community and on-the-job learning.

In one way or another we are “all learning, all the time,” says Edge. “What RPL does is put in place a process for recognising that.”

How does it work?

The institution you contact will ask you to explore your experiences and learning to date, with a view to making a formal RPL application.

It’s a reflective process that requires you to map out the skills you have learned over the years, and where relevant, to gather materials to support your application, such as CVs or job descriptions.

Once made, your application will be assessed by experienced staff in the higher education institution, who may require further information, such as a portfolio, essay, examination, or interview.

If you are successful, you may receive formal recognition or certification which can lead to entry to a programme, exemptions from part of the programme, credit, or advanced entry. RPL may even be used to gain a full academic award in some universities.

“It’s all about relevant learning – figuring out what it is you know and mapping that to a course or module,” she explains.

RPL is not a qualification in itself but a conduit to getting one, she points out, “and a bridge to your next phase of learning”.

Why do it now?

Upskilling and lifelong learning has never been more important either for individuals or employers.

For learners RPL makes visible the valuable skills people have acquired through work or other life experiences, including transferable ones such as critical thinking and interpersonal skills. Doing so can enable you to progress in higher education, get a better job or change career.

For employers RPL is an invaluable lever to upskill and retain their workforce, as well as to attract new recruits.

“The world is changing. Many of us will not be doing the same work in five or 10-years’ time, even if we are in the same organisation. We’re going to need multiple participations in education throughout our lives,” says Edge.

RPL is one of a suite of tools, from micro-credentials to digital badges and special purpose awards, that facilitate lifelong learning. “It allows you to bank what you know and use it to springboard into the next stage of your life, career or learning journey,” she adds.

“Employers tell us how both motivation and productivity increase as a result of RPL and of course it’s also key in terms of addressing skills shortages and developing talent pipelines. But people who have gone through RPL talk about the profound effect it has on them at a personal level,” she points out.

“The validation it gives is huge, as are the opportunities it opens up, which is why people who come back to learning through RPL tend to keep coming back again and again. They have a thirst to keep going, which is great because university should be seen as your life partner, you don’t wave goodbye to it at 23.”

How deep industry experience helped one senior manager gain a master’s degree

When Dubliner Sean Nixon left school after his Leaving Cert in 1999 he started a third level course in business but didn’t like it. “I left to join the big bad world of work instead,” he says.

He thrived and was appointed to a management position aged just 18. He went on to have a successful career in retail management, specialising in tiles and ceramics.

Today he is general manager of Spanish natural stone company Cosentino’s Irish warehouse, near Liffey Valley. The multinational business, which has more than 6,000 employees worldwide, makes everything from flooring to kitchen worktops and bathware, and is much specified by architects and interior designers.

It was one of these designers, who was also a part-time lecturer at Technological University Dublin, that first told him about recognition of prior learning. At the time, 2021, he was looking for a management development programme.

Through an RPL process, he interviewed for, and was accepted on to the masters in professional design practice programme at TU Dublin in November 2021. He graduated with first class honours in March 2023, having completed modules in leadership, communication, marketing, and accounting, and undertaking an industry-related dissertation.

“I gained access to the course because I could prove I had 20 years’ relevant experience under my belt,” says Nixon, who was one of the youngest people on his course.

“Many of the others were running their own business or managing teams but were suffering from impostor syndrome. They felt they didn’t deserve their business success in some way. I didn’t feel like that, but I did know that even though I’d had 20 years of management success behind me, the world is moving on. I knew that if I were to keep abreast of all the changes coming over the next 20 years – and I’m only 42 now – it would be important to keep up to date.”

Completing the course was challenging. “It was a massive effort. I was already working full-time so it was a case of work, family, sleep, the master’s, and nothing else,” he says.

But it was worth it. “I felt immensely proud when I graduated.” So much so that he may even go back. “I might do a PhD. You never know,” he says.

Find out what doors RPL could open for you at priorlearning.ie