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Durham University

Learning and Teaching Handbook

1.6.1: Staff Guidelines

  • The following guidelines reflect definitions and procedures for the management of APL (also known as Recognition of Prior Learning, or RPL) within the Durham University. The principles were agreed by Senate and the detail was progressed by Education Committee. Colleagues managing the APL process should also read the guidelines for students (Section 1.6.2) and study the form for applying for APL (Appendix (A1.3)

Please note that:

  • these guidelines apply only to requests for APL which are made after an offer of a place has been received. These requests will typically relate to one or more individual modules in the programme;
  • applications for direct entry to a second or subsequent year of study should be handled through the matriculation concession route as in these cases the offer of a place is dependent on the outcome of the concession;
  • students who are not in good standing with Durham or with another university as a result of academic failure in a previous programme of study and who wish to (re)commence study in a programme at Durham are not eligible for APL from the programme in which they failed.

1. Definitions and Background

1. APL (Accreditation of Prior Learning) can take either of two forms:

  • APEL: Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning, which is learning acquired through life experiences including work and uncertificated training, for which no formal qualification has been gained;
  • APCL: Accreditation of Prior Certificated Learning, which is any learning for which an award has been achieved.

In the text below, APL subsumes both APEL and APCL.

2. APL is increasingly used across the Higher and Further Education sectors and it is becoming an expectation among students that opportunities will be offered for prior learning of different sorts to be accredited, providing exemption from some part of their programme of study. This is the result of a number of factors including:

  • increasing emphasis on lifelong learning which encourages students to see their formal study as part of an overall pattern of development;
  • wider access to HE, producing students with a range of prior qualifications and experiences which do not fit a standard pattern of entry and progression;
  • the closer definition of what is expected within a degree programme, including learning outcomes which state what students should be able to understand, know or do on successful completion. This invites requests for exemption from students who feel that they already have some of these skills or knowledge.

3. At Durham, APL has been in use as follows:

  • there is a regulation to allow graduates to enter year 2 of an undergraduate programme;
  • part-time students who are transferring from other universities or have relevant work experience look for APL provision;
  • various Masters programmes, especially those serving particular professional constituencies (such as the MBA by Distance Learning and the MA in Education) routinely involve requests for APL from students;
  • in some of our validated programmes.

4. Since APL is now current within the sector in increasingly diverse ways, it is important that a University should:

  • have a clearly articulated position on APL consistent with its mission;
  • be able to explain this position to students;
  • have procedures in place to ensure that any APL policy is equitable and consistent.

2. Principles for the award of APL at Durham

1. A request for and a decision about APL should be based on whether the student has already achieved the learning outcomes for the module(s) from which exemption is claimed.

Rationale: the essence of an APL claim is that the student considers that he/she has already achieved what would have been covered in the module(s) concerned. How that was achieved is not the point. Where the learning outcomes for the module cover not only factual knowledge but also skills the student should have achieved the skills as well as the factual knowledge.

2. The maximum credit for APL which can be offered is normally one-third of the standard programme.

Rationale: It is of absolute importance that all students awarded a Durham qualification should have undertaken a significant amount of the study normally associated with the programme within the registered pathway at Durham. The volume of one-third as a normal maximum which can be awarded by APL is equivalent to the credit volume associated with the Preliminary Honours year at undergraduate level or to the Postgraduate Certificate within a Masters-level programme. However this analogy should not be construed as implying that only material in the first part of a programme may be substituted by APL (see further under 3 below).

Note also:

  • A full-time undergraduate cannot be given APL for more than 40 credits in any one year. This also avoids compromising his/her position as a full-time student which may have implications for aspects of student support.
  • A full-time postgraduate registered for a Masters degree cannot be given credit for more than 60 credits during that year.
  • If a student has gained direct entry to the second year or subsequent year of study through a matriculation concession this will count towards the total of one-third of the programme as a whole which may be awarded by APL.
  • APL may not be given for an optional module where a viable alternative is available.

3. Credit under APL may be given for any element of the programme at any stage, but normally with the exception of a major project or dissertation.

Rationale: In many cases APL will relate to introductory modules only. However in, for example, a three-year undergraduate programme, it might be appropriate to give exemption from an optional module, or a particular element of a programme running through all three years: exemption should not therefore be confined to year 1. Major projects and dissertations are excluded because such work is usually the climax of a taught programme of study and therefore represents a significant amount of the 'exit velocity' of a student's achievement; it is right that such work should be undertaken at the university which is making the award. See also 4 below on research work.

4. APL can only be given for a taught module.

Rationale: for taught modules, the learning outcomes by which APL can be awarded are defined but in research-based modules or non-modular research programmes such as PhD learning outcomes are more likely to be specific to the individual student or project. Comparability between students taking the whole programme and those awarded APL for part of the programme can therefore be most accurately assured with respect to taught modules. APL may be given for taught modules within a research programme.

5. APL can only be given for a full module (or equivalent in a non-modularised programme) - not for parts of it.

Rationale: Since this is the level at whichlearning outcomes are defined, this safeguards parity, as far as possible, between students with APL and students taking the full programme as taught.

6. APL can be awarded irrespective of whether the credits gained previously contributed to a final award or an exit award.

Rationale: The emphasis is on the acquisition by students of the relevant learning outcomes rather than on the awards which a student has gained. If APL could only be awarded where credit had not previously contributed to an award (the classic problem of 'double-counting') it would be impossible to award credit for any certificated learning. This would be particularly unfortunate since whether an award has in fact been given may be in part a matter of chance - for example, in terms of whether a student's previous institution happened to award exit qualifications at Certificate or Diploma level.

7. The period between when the learning for which APL is being applied for took place, and the time at which an APL application is being made, should normally be no more than five years.

Rationale: This principle ensures the currency of the prior learning for which accreditation is being sought. In some subject areas where curricula change rapidly, departments may set a lower limit than five years.

8. APL is not a right and is entirely at the discretion initially of the subject team concerned and ultimately of the Dean or his/her deputy (by concession).

Rationale: To preserve the academic integrity of a programme, it is essential that decisions regarding APL are taken by those who have established the learning outcomes for the programme. Such people are also able to judge matters such as the currency of a student's prior learning and the implications of exemption from a module for progression at a later stage within the programme. It is not in the interests of a student seeking APL to give him/her exemption from a module if he/she will then be disadvantaged in another element of the programme.

9. A department has the right to decide, as a matter or principle, whether APL requests will be considered for any of its programmes.

Rationale: it may seem odd to allow different practices in different departments. However, this is the only way in which academic criteria can be the final arbiter in such matters: some departments may consider the overall educational experience to be enriched by requiring the participation of those who may, measured in formal terms, already satisfy the learning outcomes of the module concerned. This is comparable with giving departments the power to determine the forms of assessment (subject to University and external examiner approval), APL being in effect a form of post factum assessment.

10. Responsibility rests with the student for demonstrating that he/she has achieved the learning outcomes of the Durham module(s) from which he/she wants exemption.

Rationale: Durham offers the programme in full to all students admitted to it. If a student seeks exemption from part of that programme, it is his/her responsibility to make the case for this. However the University has a responsibility to facilitate this process for students who wish to pursue it - see 3 below.

11. The use of APL has no implications for admissions criteria.

Rationale: the decision to offer a place to an applicant depends primarily on his/her ability to pursue the programme successfully. The question of whether the applicant might already have covered some of the material and therefore be exempted from part of the programme should be addressed conceptually as a separate matter (although it may be discussed with the student at the time of application). This also ensures that all admissions decisions are taken on a common basis; any alternative approach could result in discrimination between students with/without APL claims. In cases where a student applies for direct entry to level 2 or a subsequent level you should apply for a matriculation concession.

12. The Banner system will record the number of credits and the level of study for which APL has been given as a threshold pass without a numerical mark. Modules for which APL has been given should not raise or lower degree classifications, nor affect decisions concerning the award of a Distinction at Masters' level. They should therefore be excluded from any calculation such as averaging to determine the level of the final award.

The only exception to this principle shall be where a student has undertaken a Durham module as a credit bearing short course, and has successfully applied to be granted APL in respect of the same module in a Durham programme. In this situation, the mark(s) gained from the credit bearing short course(s) shall be carried forward to the student's full programme

Rationale: Comparability can be established regarding the level, volume and learning outcomes of prior learning achieved by a particular student at another institution, but not the mark awarded which depends on information relating to the assessment which may not be available to us. The effect of increasing the weight of the Durham component in the classification of any affected award counterbalances the reduction of the Durham contribution to the award, and thus continues to ensure the integrity of the University's awards.

13. The use of APL has no implications for the upgrading of registration from MPhil to PhD or Postgraduate Certificate or Diploma to Masters.

Rationale: this is an internal academic procedure which is not materially affected by learning experiences from outside the programme.

3. Detail and procedures

1. Departmental policy

All departments should establish through their Board of Studies or an appropriate sub-committee a policy on APL for undergraduate and taught postgraduate programmes which should:

1. state whether the department will consider applications for APL and for which programmes / levels. This should be a statement of principle: it should not try to ‘second-guess' applications by defining, for example, what sort of APL would result in a successful APL request and what would not: all cases must be considered on their merits;

2. if you have decided as a matter of principle not to accept APL applications, you must give clear and acceptable reasons for this decision;

3. name a contact person for APL matters. There may be more than one such person (e.g. one for each programme or one for undergraduate and one for postgraduate programmes);

4. what advice, if any, you will give to students about APL (see 2 below). This may be, for example, a single interview with a defined time-limit, a supplementary sheet of subject-specific guidance or a telephone conversation;

5. state the composition of the sub-committee of the Board of Examiners which will consider APL applications. Note that you may co-opt additional members to this sub-committee should you need specialist advice in a particular case - e.g. if APL is being sought for a module provided by another department.

This policy should be submitted to faculty Eduction Committee for approval (and to Education Committee if APL of taught modules within a research programme is involved).

2. Support for the APL process

The onus for supplying information rests with the student who is also entirely responsible for making the decision about whether to apply for APL - which can itself be very time-consuming for the applicant. Written guidelines are available for students (Section 1.6.2) and there is no obligation on departments or members of the administration or support services to provide further advice or support for students seeking APL. By the same token, unlike many HEIs which do provide support for the APL process, we make no charge for considering an APL submission. Departments may, however, if you choose, provide advice to individuals seeking APL (the extent of this should be outlined in the departmental policy on APL). If you do decide to do this, you should be careful:

1. to treat all applicants equally in this respect;

2. not in any way to pre-judge the outcome of the application for APL. Giving advice or commenting on the viability of a possible application must not be construed by the student as indicating a favourable outcome for the application;

3. not in any way to promote APL as an option to encourage applicants.

3. The process itself

1. A student may apply for APL once he/she has received a conditional or unconditional offer of a place from the University. He/she may also apply after he/she has been registered as a student.

(a) For all students other than Foundation Year students:

  • a student may not apply for APL after the start of the academic year in which he/she would normally take the module(s) from which he/she wants exemption;
  • there are two cut-off dates for applications for APL: 1 May and 1 August. If a student applies by 1 May it must be processed so that the student hears the outcome by the end of June; applications received for 1 August must be processed so that the student hears the outcome by the end of September.

(b) For Foundation Year students:

  • students may apply for APL up to 1 December of their Foundation Year (of the first year of the Foundation Year if studying part-time);
  • if a Foundation Year student applies for APL after 1 August he/she must register for, and study on, the modules concerned until the outcome of the APL application is known.

2. The student should first check with the department that you will consider an APL request. (see under Departmental Policy above). It is essential that such enquiries are handled by someone qualified to respond to the enquirer and that they are logged by the department. You may wish to insist that such enquiries are put in writing or email so that you can keep a record. (Students must not apply for APL under the mistaken belief that their application will be considered when the departmental policy is not to consider APL.)

3. If the department indicates that it will consider an APL application the student obtains:

  • from the department, details of the learning outcomes, content and assessment of the module(s) for which he/she wishes to seek APL;
  • an APL application form (available in Appendix (A1.3)) or to be obtained from the department)

4. If on the basis of the module information the student wishes to proceed with the application, he/she completes the form (for details - see the form and the guidelines for students appended to this document) and submits it to the department with:

  • the originals of all the evidence listed as attachments on the form;
  • two photocopies of the full set of evidence;
  • a stamped addressed envelope in which the originals will be returned to him/her after the photocopies have been authenticated.

5. The department should immediately check the photocopy documents against the originals and, if they appear genuine, return the originals to the student in the SAE provided. You will need one of the sets of photocopies for your files and one to send with the concession request to the relevant Faculty Pc's office. You must be satisfied of the authenticity of the evidence; you may wish to phone or write to the educational institution / employer etc concerned or to seek further evidence from the student. If you remain unhappy with the evidence you have the right to reject the application but you must be able to give good reasons for this.

6. The department should consider the application through a sub-committee of Board of Examiners. The Sub-Committee may:

  • consider that the student has demonstrated that he/she has already met the learning outcomes for the module(s) for which he/she wants credit and ask the Faculty Pro-Vice-Chancellor or his/her deputy for a concession to permit this;
  • consider that the student has not demonstrated that he/she has already met the learning outcomes for the module(s) for which he/she wants credit and reject his/her application;
  • consider that the student may have a case for APL but that you need more evidence to make a decision. In that case you will ask the student for more information or may ask him/her to take a written test or an oral test (a viva) before making a final decision.

The discussion of the sub-committee as well as the outcome must be minuted so that the reasons for accepting / rejecting the application are clearly recorded. The Sub-Committee should meet just before the June or September meeting (as the case may be) of the full Board of Examiners and the minutes should be received by the full Board of Examiners which should ratify the decisions. The department should complete an APL concession form and append to it a copy of the Sub-Committee minutes.

Note that you have the right to reject an application if is submitted late, if the form is not complete and/or if the supporting evidence is not clear.

7. The APL application is then forwarded to the chair of the relevant Faculty Education Committee with one of the photocopies of the supporting documentation supplied by the student, with a recommendation either to reject or to support a concession for APL. This should be done by the end of the first week in June (for applications submitted by 1 May) or the end of the first week in September (for applications submitted by 1 August). The outcome of the concession request will be notified to the student and to the department by the Student Recruitment and Admissions Office by the end of June (for applications submitted by 1 May) or the end of September (for applications submitted by 1 August). The department must not make any communication with the student which might pre-empt the consideration of the concession.

8. The letter to the student confirming the outcome of their request will be copied to the student's college and the Student Registry (for undergraduate programmes) / Academic Support Office (for postgraduate programmes) to ensure that the correct information is entered onto the Banner student record.


  • Single Honours students should put their requests for APL to the department which runs their programme. Where another department actually provides the module(s) for which APL is sought the ‘home' department of the Single Honours programme will need to take advice from the department which ‘owns' the module. You may wish to co-opt an appropriate colleague from the ‘provider' department onto the APL sub-committee when the application is discussed.
  • Joint Honours and Combined Honours / Natural Sciences students should put their requests to the department which runs the module(s) for which they want APL. In some cases this may mean that students make an APL application to more than one department. These requests are handled by each department individually because only the specialist department can give an informed decision about whether the APL request is reasonable.
  • The concession request for Joint Honours and Combined Honours / Natural Sciences students has to be agreed by the ‘partner' department or the Director of Combined Honours / Natural Sciences as the case may be. This will ensure that students do not seek excessive numbers of APL requests from different sources.

4. The implications of APL for degree classification

A student given APL will not have to register for or take the modules for which credit has been given. The Banner student record will record the number and level of credits for which APL has been given and this will be shown on any transcript which the student may receive. The modules awarded by APL will be shown as having been passed but a percentage mark will not be recorded.

If the mark for the module(s) concerned would normally contribute to the final degree classification or to an averaging process for the award of a distinction at Masters level, then those module(s) will be excluded from the calculation and the average will be based on the modules taken at Durham only. Any weighting of marks remains the same. So for example if a student has APL for 20 credits of Level 2 work and this counts for 40% of the marks for the final degree classification, that 40% will be made up from the remaining 100 credits of work at Level 2.

A Durham award may only be given if the student has studied at least two-thirds of the programme concerned at Durham. This applies to exit qualification at Certificate or Diploma level as well as to degrees. Thus a student who has been exempted by a matriculation concession from the whole of the first year of a Bachelors degree may not be awarded a Certificate in that subject. However an undergraduate who has been given APL in respect of up to 40 credits of Level 1 work may be awarded a Certificate based on the Level 1 work studied at Durham. A postgraduate may be awarded APL in respect of 60 credits (one-third of a Master's degree) but if those credits equate to the whole of the relevant postgraduate certificate, the student would not be eligible for the award of the certificate. However a postgraduate awarded APL in respect of 15 credits would be so eligible. In all such cases the award will be made on the basis only of the work undertaken at Durham.