Life's lessons hold key to study success

August 29, 2003

Philip Fine describes a Canadian scheme that offers a way of entering university on the strength of experience.

Canada's Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) Centre has the ability to reach out to a wide strata of the population. It has helped senior banking executives, who went into their profession straight from high school, to qualify for an MBA programme and has convinced workers from towns shuttered by closed fisheries and coal mines that they have something to offer world-class companies.

The centre has a wide network of partners, including the government, labour groups and higher education institutions, that have benefited from teaching people how to make their prior learning - from organisational accomplishments to professional development workshops - into attractive university and employment qualifications.

Its five university partners and the province's 13-campus community college have used PLA to attract new students while not watering down their collective grade-point averages.

Dalhousie University professor Jim McNiven conducted an informal survey of students registered on the university's MBA and MPA (masters in public administration) programmes to see if there was any difference between those who had entered through PLA and those who were assessed through the more traditional route of university transcripts. He found that PLA learners' marks were as varied as those of an average class of students.

The process has also helped the community college sector in Nova Scotia.

With the province bedevilled by economic changes and citizens with less formal education often unable to take advantage of positive developments, the Nova Scotia Community College has helped make PLA part of its mission.

The college and the centre were able to go into Guysborough, a county hard hit by the collapse of the Atlantic fisheries, to help a group of sea workers, most of whom did not finish high school. Their seafaring experiencing perfectly matched the needs of Secunda Marine, an offshore support company that lays undersea cables. Every one of the 17 applicants landed a job.

The PLA centre says transcripts have traditionally been rough proxies for understanding someone's qualifications and that it is asking universities to become more flexible in their assessments.

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