Thirty-five years of expertise in executive competencies.

 

RECTOR'S LETTER

Fifteen years of "VAE" APL

The fifteen years of the law 2002-73, so-called law on social modernisation, which instituted the VAE (Validation des Acquis de l'Expérience) system for Accredidation of Prior Learning, is the opportunity to make an assessment of this short history. During its first five years the "VAE" system for APL mainly grew towards its full effectiveness, in terms of recognition, methods, competencies and clientele.

Although the law had affirmed the liceity of this way of getting a qualification, the validity of the process and the receivability of the degrees, it has been necessary to make it impossible to distinguish a degree obtained through accreditation of prior learning from a degree obtained after a school year, with or without examination, in order to insure that a discrimination would not be instaured in practice. Besides the text establishing the legal equivalency of the four ways of getting a degree, namely initial schooling, apprenticeship, adult training and accreditation of prior learning, the conceivers of the system found it necessary to prevent a de facto distinction and therefore they imposed the issuance of a unique degree, identical whichever way it is obtained. This didn't prevent a discrimination to be instaured, from the very beginning, by the signatories of degrees themselves (universities and schools), since they didn't want, or know how, to compensate concretely (on the paper) the absence of exam results or grades transcripts. Even after the instauration, quickly promulgated by decree and very slowly adopted in practice, of the European Diploma Supplement, the authorities issuing degrees through APL, that is all teachning institutions (since any institution issuing a degree has the legal obligation to propose it through the APL way), abstained during a long time from issuing a supplement for the degrees obtained through APL. Thus, of two owners of the same degree, the one who had studied full-time could present a diploma supplement and the one who had got his experiential learning accredited was unable to show any diploma supplement... something recruiters quickly understood.

 

Therefore it has been necessary to impose, through communication means, the effective recognition of the degrees obtained through APL, in addition to their legal validity. Because, if the legal validity of a degree is important (and formerly in France its "homologation") especially for controlled professions which access is regulated and depending on the possession of a state degree, and generally even a named specific one, the majority of trades are of free access and exercice. And in the case of salaried positions the employer has total freedom of recruitment and criteria, so the human resources departments can freely accept or not this or that element of a candidature, for example requiring or not the possession of a degree, prefering this degree rather than that one, demand this mention or theses rates... and discard the degree obtained through APL, of through adult training, for example. This is why a long work has been necessary to insure the full recognition of APL as a way of a accession to a degree.

Another face of the building-up of the "VAE" system for APL during its first five years was the exploration, testing and improving of the methods. A lot of institutions of initial education had already practiced since 1992 the previous French system for partial accreditation of professional learning, according to less detailed modalities since it was then only about waiving (by-passing) some final exams but not about giving a full degree, while for "VAE" accreditation of prior learning it is necessary to really evaluate, meaning to identify, quantify and situate (on a scale) the knowledge of a person. Several studies, experimentations and best-practice presentations took place then, followed by confrontations, comparisons and validations (in the sense of confirmations of validity) between the education and research institutions that were most advanced on this field, among which some (like UMI) had anticipated on the law by searching abroad the tools that could fit in its framework and contribute to its concrete and effective application. During this phase of process construction appeared some interpretation conflicts, for example between the persons (or institutions) who defended an analytical approach and the ones who believed in a synthetic approach, or between the ones who thought they had to take for a basis a teaching referential and those who prefered to work from a competencies referential of more generally from a trade referential (post description), or also between the ones who were inspired by the British National Vocational Qualifications and those who had been influenced by the French (military) process of broader missions. Nevertheless, like for any law some indications about the "legislator's intention" had been brought since the premisses and the preamble of the law, but the implementation of the system suffered a quite heavy hand from the public powers (which committment was necessary to impose on the educational institutions the mere concept of the degree without studies) and public servants are by nature more open to the letter than to the spirit and to practical details than to a pursued finality. A lot of "VAE" (APL) professionals used also to see in the long, difficult and redundant construction of process and methods the opportunity to affirm or even to heavily demonstrate the technicity, the reliability and the legitimacy of the system. In most educational institutions even of "progressist" ideology, the idea of having to grant the degree to some unknown persons who had never sat in their classrooms nor tasted the supreme science of their doct professors, was a revolutionary idea in the sense of blasphematory, a sacrilege against the temples of knowledge, which pushed the bearers (per vocation or per designation) of APL to build some complex process machinery insuring that no uninstructed person would get the holly parchment more easily than a duly instructed, continuously rated and finally examined person. It can be added that this strange mission for teaching institutions, the one of certifying that somebody doesn't need to follow any course, has generally (and then systematically) been dumped on the professional training department, those hands-on technicians accustomed to train "adults" (for a lot of university people a person in first education is not an adult), to meet with private companies people (sometimes considered as rawly uneducated rather than professionals), to sell their services like vulgar merchants (another sacrilege against science), and to roll-up yearly courses into one-week packages. Therefore, these dark-street dealers of the precious knowledge of humankind had to fight hard to establish, if not full respectability, at least some legitimacy, and the process they built are more intended to prove the seriousness of APL than to verify the adequation between the learnings of a candidate and the requirements of a degree.

Another face of the building-up of the "VAE" system for APL during its first five years was the construction of competencies. It was a new profession. Accreditation of prior learning is not a person sitting for an exam as a free candidate, in which case any teacher able to correct the sheets of a student could as well correct the sheets of a candidate who came to the exam without having followed the courses, as it is the case for a lot of degrees or certificates for which there is no specific and exclusive preparation and where any candidate can, alone or with the courses of different types given by diverse institutions, pass some tests established according to an inventory (a catalogue) of knowledge to be verified. On the contrary for APL it is, according to the texts, all about checking the capacity to run the functions for which the degree certifies idoneity. Just as a reminding, according to the texts "VAE" APL is applicable only to professional certifications (the ones related to functions), not to degrees of general education that certify a level of culture or a rank in humanities. The essence of the degree itself changed since it doesn't attest any more the acquisition of some determined knowledge (generally specified in a teaching program) but it certifies now the aptitude or ability to exert a certain scope of functions, of which (by the way) no owner of said degree will exert the totality during his career. In principle this ability is easy to determine since the applicant to the accreditation of his prior learning must have practiced for at least three years one of the functions for which the degree certifies the aptitude, therefore a simple verification of the authencity of the career, or even simply of the few years experience brought in support of the accreditation request, should suffice: checking that the claimed experience is real (not exagerated or invented) and corresponds effectively to one of the professions for which the degree certifies capacity. Nevertheless, and this comes mostly from the preoccupation to "prove" the pertinence of APL (as exposed in the previous paragraph), experience assessors began to seperate, identify (name) and describe (explicitely) all the acquired knowledge and competencies. They were encouraged in that by some of the first application decrees, mentionning a role of control of the "degree demands", when actually a degree is not a list of demands but a certificate or an attestation, established of course after a decision taken upon the satisfaction of demands precisely different, for a same degree, depending on whether the applicant came from apprenticeship (two years of continual practice control by a master), from first education (final examination of knowledge assimilation), from adult training (requirement of assiduity mainly) or from accreditation of prior learning (requirement of experience). So, assessors of prior experiential learning trained and became true experts in competencies, and accumulated through a few years a respectable experience in the matter. On the other hand the same departments, and sometimes the same persons, confronted with the internal (institutional) pressure to prove that their applicants had learned, moved a little bit away from educational engineering to question cognitive science in order to demonstrate that is their candidates knew it's because they had learned, and they proceeded not only to deconstruct the learning process into pieces but also to have it analyse by the candidates to APL themselves. Although from a student in first education one only asks to prove that he knows, by passing a knowledge examination, from a candidate to the accreditation of his prior learning one asks to demonstrate that he learned, by discovering, analysing and explicitating the process of his learning. This distorsion of the finality and the modalities of the system reached the point where it can now be said that someone who managed to get his prior learning accredited became necessarily for that purpose an expert in informal learning processes. Or course the tutorship of this analysis, called "accompaniment" (coaching) and since then a full-scale market distinct from the one of validation or accreditation, is also a new profession for the APL specialists, which appeared during those first five years although it mainly strenghened during the next five ones.

Finally, another aspect of the building-up of the "VAE" system for APL, during the first five years, was the birth of a market. Althoug the official tale is about a new right guaranteed to everyone, and the administration language is the one of user service since the state doesn't see in the citizens anything more than mere users of public services, reality is much more marketing-related. First the public had to be informed about the proclamation of this new right and the implementation of this new system, and despite a national-wide campaign there was a very deep deficit of information, UMI was on the first line to notice it. Indeed, for the first few years of "VAE" APL, and while other institutions were still at the point of getting informed about their legal obligations (of proposing all their degrees to APL), exchanging on the pratical modalities or training their people, UMI had already conceived its methodology and was proposing its services on a recent internet which, at the beginning of the two-thousands in France, was multiplying from year to year but was still far from representing all the economic fabric (and educational even less), since well-established institutions didn't have the need of a webpage to be known, while little training centers were refreshing their Minitel pages in case the internet would collapse like the value of the "dotcoms". Thus, for several years any search on the words "validation des acquis de l'expérience" or "VAE" would bring the site of UMI among the very first positions of the first page of results on the main search engines, which had the inconvenient of overflowding under flows of unexploitable information requests but the advantage of allowing to measure the level of hopes and the deficit of basic information, the conjunction of both leading also to the creation of some myths. A big work of elementary information, besides the simple political affirmation of the right to a degree, had to be provided for the refutation of myths (positive and negative ones), the creation of a working atmosphere, the meeting between demand and offer, that is the constitution of a market. The credibility of the "VAE" system for APL, relying mostly upon the legitimacy of the demarch, the professionalism of the actors and the validity of the degrees, didn't need to be "sold" only to sectorial unions and to the managers of human resources, but also to the possible candidates who would of course never pursue a false degree, a hasty evaluation, an "obtained through APL" red stamp or an a posteriori assimilation with incompetent graduates leading to the disconsideration and collapse of the system on a medium term. The creation of a market is also the accumulation of a critical mass of completed and successful cases, which allows the institutions to present some typical cases and the possible candidates to have heard of it from a friend who went through it, thus the reaching of a minimal volume necessary for the self-feeding of the market, meaning maintenance of the competencies and sustainability of the offer, renewal of the demand and regeneration of the clientele. The first few yars of the system effectively permitted the birth and strenghening of a market for the "VAE" system for accreditation of prior learning.

The balance of the next three years or the "VAE" system for APL will be explored in a next note.