Case Study 3

University of Limerick:
Master of Business Studies in International Entrepreneurship Management
(NFQ Level 9)

Introduction

Recognition of Prior Learning Policy

- Institution-Level Policy

- Programme-Level Policy within Kemmy Business School

- Data Collection

Recognition of Prior Learning Process

- Application Process

- Assessment of RPL Applications

Reflections

 

Introduction

This case study examines the development and implementation of a recognition of prior learning (RPL) policy and associated processes for the Master of Business Studies in International Entrepreneurship Management (NFQ Level 9), offered by the Kemmy Business School (KBS) in the University of Limerick (UL) . The Master of Business Studies in International Entrepreneurship Management is designed to provide recent graduates, owner/managers of small businesses or individuals who work with small firms the primary theoretical and practical knowledge and skills required to start and manage a small business internationally.
 

As per the prospectus, the objectives of the programme are as follows:

  • To provide participants with an insight into the characteristics, role and functions of the entrepreneur and owner/manager that are needed to grow a small business internationally;
  • To provide students with an understanding of the functional disciplines of a business and how they change as the small business grows and becomes international in its focus;
  • To provide participants with the knowledge and competencies to develop an international business strategy for a small business; and
  • To develop useful skills and perspectives such as creative problem solving, diagnostic skills, communication and project management skills that are needed to grow a small business internationally.
  •  

The programme is offered on a one-year full-time or a two-year part-time basis. Cohorts typically comprise 22 – 23 full-time students and 3 – 4 part-time students.
 

The recognition of prior certified and prior experiential learning is one component of the entry procedures used to determine the suitability of applicants who do not meet the prescribed entry requirements of a 2.2 honours degree for the programme. The Kemmy Business School does not grant advanced entry or exemptions from elements of programmes to RPL applicants.
 

Recognition of Prior Learning Policy
 

Institution-Level Policy
 

The University of Limerick institutional RPL policy has been in place since 2003. Staff described the process by which the policy was developed as a very organic one with its genesis in the process of transfers from institute of technology programmes, which were well established in the university. The university identified the need to formalise this process, making it more broadly available and understood and part of the academic process. Key tenets of the terms for formalising the process were that it would be flexible and that RPL would be considered by programme designers from the initial stages of programme design. The reforms, which stemmed from the Bologna process and also the development of the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ), proved to be the drivers behind the move to formalise the process. Key to its success and implementation was the parallel development of learning outcomes at programme and module level. The RPL policy does not allow for the granting of full awards on the basis of RPL. The policy also requires that a learner may be exempted from no more than 50% of a programme. There is a degree of discretion afforded to staff considering applications in the implementation of this requirement, as there are differing perspectives when admitting applicants to a four-year undergraduate award and to a shorter postgraduate programme.
 

Currently, the Office of Lifelong Learning (OLL) acts as a central resource for staff and learners regarding RPL. Staff affirmed that the office serves as a source of advice, information and encouragement. The OLL actively encourages the implementation of RPL within schools and faculties. Where RPL is in place, the Office seeks to address any inconsistencies and ensure rationales are clearly documented, and that individual RPL processes are quality assured. Overall, the OLL is of the opinion that RPL is administered well and professionally.


There are genuine concerns as to how demand for RPL will grow and the strain it will place on university resources. The Director of Lifelong Learning believes that this growth will be best managed through a devolved process and that it is not necessary to develop an institution-wide system. Some programmes will experience small jumps in the number of applications with minimal impact, while others will experience a significant jump in numbers. This will be an issue, especially if RPL applications are received in large numbers for standard undergraduate programmes, which staff suggested would create a significant draw on resources in the future and result a need for a changed financial model for the university.
 

However, it is felt that the most effective means of managing any increase in applications is through a devolved process where experts in the relevant discipline can manage the process within the faculty. This approach will add to the number of staff involved and developing experience in the assessment of applications. It may become necessary to appoint a designated RPL officer who would be able to respond to general queries and then refer issues related to a discipline or programme to the relevant faculty or school. Any such moves will be in response to the changing demands and the needs of learners within the institution as a whole, and changes to policy and practice are continually discussed accordingly.
The Office of Lifelong Learning is considering the development of a module on RPL as part of the formal Diploma in Teaching which is offered to UL staff. The Office considers it crucial that staff are trained and aware of the RPL process and what it means. Such a module may be developed in conjunction with the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) and the work done to date by DIT in developing staff guidelines and policy on RPL. The university has also formed links with The National Academy for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (NAIRTL) and the Springboard Fund, so that a range of resources and knowledge is available to support the universities’ ongoing development of its RPL policy and practice.
 

The Director of Lifelong Learning reported that confidence has grown in the RPL system within the university and that it is now viewed as part of the academic process. It is hoped to develop an e-portfolio template so that applications may be submitted online, which can be adapted locally as per the requirements of individual programmes.
 

Programme-Level RPL Policy within Kemmy Business School
 

The Kemmy Business School does not grant exemptions from Masters level programmes, as per School policy. The School considers full commitment from the learner and class participation to be crucial to learning at this level and on that basis will not consider applications for exemptions. Staff of the MBS in International Entrepreneurship Management programme explained that granting exemptions may actually have a negative effect in that learners would not gain the full benefit of learning a subject in a different context and perhaps with a different emphasis to that which was experienced by the student when they first studied the module elsewhere. This may create some tensions where learners are expected to undertake modules in subject areas where they are professionally qualified (e.g. a solicitor may be required to complete a law module or a finance officer may be required to undertake an accounting module). The programme is designed to bring new insight to learners, filtering existing learning through the perspective of a small business. Equally important is the peer learning aspect of the programme. It is felt that the full participation of learners and the sharing of experiences and knowledge is a key element of the programme which would be undermined by offering exemptions. This approach is not applied across the university; a more flexible approach is applied in the schools of Science and Engineering for instance. Additionally, a number of programmes within the Business School have integrated modules whereby learning from a variety of modules may be drawn upon in completing projects or assignments.
 

Staff highlighted that the programme does not operate in isolation within the university; there are a number of learning supports in place which facilitate those students who have been out of formal education for some time. A range of student supports are provided by the university, such as study skills support, maths support, a writing centre and also personal and online support on the use of the university library. The Director of Lifelong Learning works to ensure that students are aware of these services and that they are freely available to learners who enter through non-traditional routes.
 

Data Collection
 

The university does not maintain data on RPL applications centrally (although information could be gathered if necessary by liaising with programme leaders). Staff offered that there is a sociological imperative for recording the manner of students’ admission, whether through RPL or Access programmes, and subsequent progression. Staff stated that should such data be collected, it should be done in an ethical way. Staff suggested that any number of factors can impact on how a learner performs, including age, maturity and ability to manage time and they are cautious of labeling learners on the basis of how they accessed a programme. It was also proposed that to 'tag' people may instill a bias and may set an artificially high standard for students who access learning through the RPL route. Staff have had consistently positive experiences with learners admitted through RPL and they feel that for applicants to pursue an application through RPL demonstrates significant motivation and this motivation often carries through to their participation in the programme. To 'tag' learners and any bias this might instill would be inappropriate.

RPL Application Process 
 

The typical entry requirement for the programme is a Second Class Honours (Grade 2) Bachelor Degree (NFQ Level 8). However applicants who do not meet this academic criteria, but who have a 3rd class Honours Bachelor Degreee with substantial small business experience as founders or owner/managers, may be considered for entry into the programme. The School has not admitted any applicants without a degree onto this programme. This approach has been discussed, and staff acknowledged that it is likely that people who do not hold a degree may seek admission to the programme in the future and that the School will need to consider these applications. To do so would require the School to review the application process and the role of RPL in the selection process of candidates.

Table 8: RPL Application Process

Application Process

Staff may receive a query directly from a member of the public or have queries referred from the admissions office and these are then forwarded to the Programme Director of the MBS in International Entrepreneurship Management programme. Queries regarding the programme come from a number of sources e.g. via phone, email or directed from the postgraduate admissions office; knowledge of the programme has spread through word of mouth and the programme is also promoted at careers fairs.
Initial discussions take place between the Programme Director and the applicant. Staff will get a sense of the level of interest of an applicant, what they hope to achieve through the programme and also the perspective and experiences they can share during the programme to the benefit of other learners.


With this information established, and if the applicant does not meet the established academic entry requirements, the applicant will be invited to complete a standard application form and a specially designed RPL application form. Both application forms are submitted online.
Applicants who have met the entry requirements for RPL are then invited to interview. The interview may also include a short written exercise on some element of the applicant’s prior learning. Applicants are also required to provide a supporting statement as to why they should be accepted on to the programme and where they think they can add value to the programme. Applicants will be informed prior to the interview if they will be asked to complete this exercise.


Where candidates are non-native English language speakers, certified demonstrable achievement in a Standard English Language Competency Test will be required, which is a university requirement.
An Assessment Board will meet as required to review each application. The Assessment Board is comprised of the Director of the MBS in International Entrepreneurship Management programme, the Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs; a representative from the Admissions Office and the Director of Postgraduate Programmes in the Kemmy Business School.
Applicants will then be informed of the outcome of the Assessment Boards decision. There are three possible outcomes – the application may be successful, the application may not be successful or further action may be required. Where further action is required, the School may ask the applicant to provide further information or elaboration on a particular area of their previous learning mentioned in the application, or to provide names of referees that can be contacted to substantiate and further endorse their application.

An applicant may realise he/she is not suited to the programme or the Programme Director may feel from initial conversations or following assessment that an applicant would not benefit from the programme. This can apply equally to applicants who meet the academic criteria and those who do not. In some of these cases, the applicant may be referred to the Management Development Unit within the Kemmy Business School where a more appropriate programme may be identified. These applicants are dealt with personally and are provided with feedback on the decision and advised on how they can best progress their academic career.


The following items are requested in the RPL application form:

  • Personal details of the applicant;
  • A Curriculum Vitae describing educational background; background in starting and managing a business; training, advising and mentoring experience and any other relevant experience;
  • Details of continuing professional development programmes, whether accredited or non-accredited;
  • Examples of a challenge faced in the workplace, how it was managed and reflections upon this example;
  • Outlines of a Continuing Professional Development Plan;
  • References and Testimonials (a character reference and a reference from the principal of an educational institution authenticating the academic evidence in the portfolio); and
  • A supporting statement indicating why they should be accepted onto the MBS in International Entrepreneurship Management.

Applicants are not charged any additional fees for the assessment of their RPL applications (fees are charged for the assessment of applications in other faculties and schools, including programmes where full fees are charged for admission).
 

Staff of the KBS School feel they could cope with an exponential increase in the number of RPL applications. The number of applications is increasing; as are the number of queries and the School will continue to manage the scaling and review of its process to meet demand. Staff of the School are grateful of the Office for Lifelong Learning, which acts as a central resource to turn to if necessary and also the range of learner supports in place in the university.


Assessment of RPL Applications
 

The Kemmy Business School has developed general assessment criteria for processing applications as follows:

  • Relevance / Validity: evidence presented is directly relevant to the standard for entry to, credit towards, or exemption from, parts of the award in question;
  • Equivalency: evidence presented demonstrates that the standards for entry to, credit towards, or exemption from, parts of the award in question have been met;
  • Currency: evidence is current within the last 5 years. Evidence provided may be older, but must still show that it is current to the skill, knowledge and competency requirements of the award;
  • Authenticity: evidence is endorsed by an educational institution where appropriate and/or by a current employer, referee/ appropriate person; and
  • Sufficiency: the evidence provided is adequate to meet the application for entry to credit towards, or exemption from, parts of the award in question.
     

The Programme Director adopts an open and flexible approach to the type of previous learning which can be presented. The programme is targeted at learners who may not have specific knowledge of an area, such as accounting, but their prior learning demonstrates an aptitude for such elements of the programme. However, there are a high number of deliverables associated with the programme so that staff will need to be satisfied that the volume and level of prior learning completed is relevant and has adequately prepared the learner to undertake the programme. Staff do not wish to admit people who will struggle with the programme or fail. 
 

There is some element of a self-selection process for such a specific programme. Applicants seek out the programme or choose it because of its specific outcomes and will often have prior learning which can be more easily matched to the learning outcomes of the programme than to a more general programme of study.

Reflections


It was stated that for UL to be successful in broadening participation to a more diverse student body, the university will need to admit two or three times as many students through non-traditional routes, such as RPL, in the future. Staff suggested that universities will be called upon to become more flexible in how they deliver learning and in particular address the needs of those in unemployment.


The Director of Lifelong Learning stated that the institution-level policy will be reviewed and spoke of a number of developments which would enhance the RPL process. A number of these have been mentioned throughout and are included in the list below:

  • The development of an online e-portfolio application process/form which can be adapted by each discipline;
  • The development of an RPL module as part of the Diploma in Teaching offered to staff;
  • To offer seminars/ instruction leaflets on completion of the RPL application form for learners; and
  • The development of a national forum for sharing experiences and knowledge on RPL.

Staff from the Kemmy Business School are conscious that the nature of queries regarding the MBS in International Entrepreneurship Management programme are changing and applicants are presenting from more varied backgrounds and that the application process will need to be adapted accordingly.


Staff advised that it is essential that those involved in designing and managing an RPL process understand the programme outcomes fully, that they have previous experience in the discipline and that an RPL process allows for flexibility. Any policy needs to be thought through, mindful that it is previous learning which must be assessed, not experience per se.


Effective guidance for applicants can be crucial for applicants and the assessor. The Director of Lifelong Learning offered an example of guidance from the UL School of Nursing which offers a seminar on how to complete the application form for those considering making an RPL application. Evidence shows that 90% of those who attend the seminar and subsequently apply are successful, and conversely 90% of those who do not attend will not be successful. Such seminars are advertised in local press in advance of admission deadlines. For staff, a significant amount of time can be dedicated to advising applicants and explaining basic concepts, so these seminars can also offer an important time saving measure.


Staff acknowledged that there may be perceptions that a move to RPL can be seen to lead to a compromise on standards; however, their experience is that RPL applications are demanding and test the standards of applicants fully. It should not be seen as an easy option. Learners may often have spent some time outside of education and struggle initially with the demands of the programme. However the structure of the MBS in International Entrepreneurship Management offers support to learners throughout; learners may look to support from personnel within the School and come to form good relationships with staff. Also, the programme is examined in a very practical way which allows learners to draw on their own experiences in completing assessments. The experiences of the School have shown that learners admitted through the RPL process have ultimately done extremely well. Staff feel that applicants admitted through RPL in some ways feel the need to prove themselves more and work hard to re-commit to the demands of education.

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