RPL: Can South Africa afford rampant and unchecked Academic Elitism?

By: Ivor Blumenthal

SOCIAL ENGINEERING OF THE MOST DISASTROUS KIND. The Council of Higher Education (CHE) has established itself as South Africa’s primary protector of the Holy Grail of Higher Education Qualifications. At the cost of the dignity of our working citizens.

In 2005 those of us operating in the world of training, development and workplace lifelong learning, began engaging on what was then already global best practices, designed to recognise the competency and professionalism of adults in the world of work. We wanted to find ways of acknowledging their competency, matched with their experience and identifying their unique and collective contribution in their workplaces. Those people who were unable to afford or the legal entitlement to have access, to obtain degrees.

The challenge was to map the treasure troves of evidence which exist in the workplace about these people, against the peculiar, mundane and ordinary outcomes enshrined, protected and defended at all costs as the sacrosanct territory of the academic. The Degree and worse, post-graduate Degrees including masters and doctorates. The identified and targeted tool to openly target was the infamous “Statement of Results” that is more critical than the award itself.

We were intent on creating a campaign for the Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) of the highest level of competency attained by the working hero, mapped against the same outcomes which academically would be reflected in those “Statement of Results”. Outcomes traditionally reserved for school leavers who progress to University and worse, on to post-graduate qualifications, with no experience of the real world of work.

Being at the helm of a SETA my objective in involving myself in this project was to bring the millions of workers employed by my corporate members, who had been overlooked, marginalised and especially those who had been legislatively prevented from attaining qualifications, into contention for recognition, award and normalization. To graduate just as their sons and daughters were doing, because of their workplace contributions, not despite them.

RPL in the World of Work

In their purest form, degrees are awards recognizing competency and accomplishment, irrespective of how they were arrived at. We of the world of work, were less interested in assessments by exams and multiple-choice testing than we were in on-the-job, competency-based assessments of the real contributions which workers were able to make on the shop floor.

“Sacrilege” I hear academics scream aloud! How dare I be suggesting that we should blue-collar the elitist instruments preserved for the minority of our population at the expense of the majority?

I recall the then Minister of Labour and my boss, Membathisi Mdladlana intimating to me that true transformation in education would only come about, when there were more Blue Collar Workers in possession of Degree’s and Post-Graduate qualifications, awarded because of their workplace contributions assessed for academic credit by Assessors skilled in recognising and quantifying and mapping competence against traditional academic outcomes, than there were Degree’s and Post Graduate Degree’s proffered to youngsters, straight out of nappies.

Degrees replace Matric for minimum Literacy and Numeracy levels

Little did we know, that in 13 years South Africa would go the other way. That Degree’s would become a replacement for the school leaving standard of a Matric Certificate and that Employers would completely devalue a South African Degree as anything other than an indication of basic literacy and numeracy levels, for entry into the workplace.  

The challenge still remains though. How do we value the contributions of skilled, competent masters of their workplace trades, whether in traditional Industries or Services? How do we place them in a position to pursue socially meaningful further education, training and lifelong learning if not by measuring them up against the standard outcomes of registered qualifications, either for the awarding of credit to them for comparable competencies attained, or for allowing them entry and access into higher level qualifications?

Lots of Policy, very little delivery

The reality is that a license to do this work was legislated for over 15 years ago. In terms of Higher Education and Training Law in South Africa, accredited institutions are expected to be offering RPL services to applicants. Especially workplace applicants. The deadline for implementation enshrined in legislation was over 8 years ago. And yet, today, in 2018 we see that exceptionally few Training Providers have made allowance for a true and transparent mechanism to either grant credit towards a qualification or admit candidates into a higher-level qualification through the mechanisms available via RPL.

The Department of Higher Education and Training versus the CHE. Talk about being Internally Conflicted

On a superficial level, the argument amongst both Public and Private Training Providers is that their hands are tied. It is an argument about the dissonance between, on the one hand the aspirations of those forward-looking people employed in the Department of Higher Education and Training who proclaim an intent to want to see RPL liberally applied to the citizenry of our country so that no adult is left behind in this need to become formally recognized for their competence. This stance is juxtaposed on the other hand, with the totalitarian, biased and entrenched views of the non-mandated oligarchs running the Council of Higher Education and Training (CHE), ostensibly the Quality Assurance agent for the Department of Higher Education and Training. Talk about the bureaucratic tail wagging the accountable dog in this relationship!

A Government Department blaming one of its divisions for its inability to deliver!

Evidence of such dissonance is clear from the biased policy directives from the CHE, provided to accredited institutions about RPL, with no permitted discussion or any forum for engagement.

Arbitrary RPL Targets from the CHE are Dangerous

These institutions are restricted to randomly generated percentage targets that they are expected to meet when it comes to applying RPL either for access or for credit. Percentages such as nothing more than 40% of a person’s credits being able to be obtained via any RPL mechanisms, despite a candidate evidencing in-excess of 40% competency against the outcomes of a particular qualification. This means that competent candidates would nevertheless be forced to attend and participate in studies designed for inexperienced individuals, despite their evidencing such competency and such experience, only because they surpass the 40% ceiling for the granting of such recognition of competency via RPL.

Worse still is the really stifling and unproductive directive, that only 10% of a class or group of admitted candidates, can have gained access via RPL so that no class or cohort can be exclusively work, Industry or sectorally based, which is very often the exact magic required to make training and development relevant and applicable to the world of work.

Despite there literally being millions of people who by necessity have had no choice, or have consciously chosen, to pursue work before formal studies and who now wish to return to formal studies, in a typical class of 30 only 3 of those would be able to have been selected into the program via RPL. Why? How arbitrary! Who is making up these rules and regulations?

It has to be obvious that the CHE has captured the world of public and private training provision and have actively dislodged their control over how these accredited institutions operate, from their principles namely the Department of Higher Education and Training and from the Minister of Higher Education and Training and her boss, the President of South Africa. This publicly accountable institution, the CHE has become a law unto itself and its Office Bearers have ensured that it runs rampant. Either through disinterest or worse still because of vested interests.

Social Engineering to replace the older workforce with younger job entrants?

So, if the CHE is being allowed to act with impunity, unchecked and with disastrous consequences for the man or woman in the world of work, why?

Could it be the Governments obvious intent to marginalize and displace those employed in our economy, with the intent on replacing them with the youth?

Such seemingly arbitrary hijacking of how RPL operates and what accredited institutions are permitted to do, or are prevented from doing, smacks of misplaced social engineering of the worst kind.

The Absence of Social Partners speaks volumes!

Where are the Trade Unions in this debate? Why are they not shouting from the NEDLAC rooftop about this injustice? Why are they not demanding that Government immediately intercedes and checks the CHE ensuring that union members have unfettered access via RPL to obtaining as much credit as they are worthy of attaining and as much access to higher level qualifications as they deserve? Have they been co-opted by Government to shut-up and stay away from this war? To allow existing workers to be marginalized, overlooked and eventually forced out of the workplace in this way, in-favor of young people who need to gain access into the system? Social Engineering!

Where is the other social partner, Organised Business in this debate? Why are they not insisting that the employees of their members be allowed free and unfettered access into higher level qualifications and to be awarded credit for accomplishment, contribution, and obvious competency via RPL? Is it that they too, as Organised Business have been co-opted at the prospect of replacing long-serving employees with cheaper younger new entrants, with better qualifications who can more rapidly be brought up-to-speed and made productive, than the older employee?

A less obvious view on why this is being allowed to happen, however, may reflect differently.

No faith by the DHET in Educators, Assessors, Moderators to operationalise RPL?

This experience of badly implemented, seemingly arbitrary and biased RPL Policy, is not endemic or peculiar to South Africa. It is the same struggle in every other country seriously looking at these challenges. It seems to be about a lack of faith in the ability of the educators, the assessors and the moderators themselves. A distrust in their abilities to properly assess for experience. To identify and find evidence of competency reflected in how a person works and what they have accomplished. In the costs of doing so and in the lack of best applicable practices to be guided by. To ask such assessors to translate actual competency into academic credit is no easy task and with the lack of research and support, with the absence of the proper tools to operationally manage this process, it is no surprise that legislators around the world are not allowing the implementation of unfettered and unchecked policies guiding the implementation of RPL.

However, South Africa’s own Department of Higher Education and Training cannot claim to be so internally conflicted. Not when this debate began some 20 years ago in earnest when legislation was promulgated 15 years ago to do so, and Government has had the luxury of fiscally funded budgets for research and ongoing development. What has that money been spent on? In our case, it is more a case of disinterest, protectionism wastage and corruption, than it is of being truly and honestly conflicted.

The failure to properly implement RPL in South Africa in the best interests of the working man or woman is simply the case of Academic Elitism and Capture by a bureaucratic elite beholden to nobody or no organization, not even their own principles.

At a Government level, it is a case of Social Engineering having gone horribly wrong!