Having a degree can be a definite asset in many careers. But what if you left school early and passed Go for your first pay cheque before getting one?

What if, instead of studying for three or four years for a degree, your existing knowledge and experience is mapped against the criteria for a degree?

The answer may be to get a qualification through a process called Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL). RPL requires a paradigm shift in the way we think. It challenges the traditional notion that to get a degree you need to attend a university or polytechnic and follow a prescribed curriculum.

People have all sorts of reasons for wanting their experience recognised in a formal qualification. Pita Cherrington, chief executive at Te Roopu Taurima O Manukau Trust, wanted to set an example to his grandchildren because other than his daughter no one else in the whanau had formal qualifications. So he applied to be assessed for a Bachelor of Applied Management. "I would like to see my grandchildren strive to be successful," says Cherrington. "I took my oldest grandson to my graduation and he was very impressed."

Cherrington says the process of preparing for the assessment made him reflect on what he had learned in managing various organisations over 20 years and clarified his thinking. The qualification assisted Cherrington in getting his current role. He also learned to talk about himself. "In Maoridom we have a saying that the kumara is sweetest when it doesn't talk about itself."

Cherrington's trust colleague Lorraine Bailey, who holds the role of manager of strategy and development, was instrumental in motivating him to join her in getting a degree.

"The qualification had all the earmarks of something that suited me," says Bailey. "I am Maori and I am a very oral person. I have had a lot of experience in writing, but I much prefer speaking. I could use all of my experiential learning and come out with the qualification."

Each industry is different. Kate Harvey has been a careers adviser for 20 years. In 2008, she qualified through Otago Polytech for a Diploma of Applied Social Services in career services. It doesn't give her any additional remuneration in her day job at Sacred Heart College, but it does allow her to join the Career Practitioners Association of Australia and New Zealand, which requires a level six qualification or above.

What was more important to Harvey was that the process of being assessed for the degree helped her tie her theoretical knowledge gained at workshops with her practical experience. It affirmed to her that her approach to her work was indeed the right one. "It was really empowering," said Harvey.

Like many of the Otago Polytech RPL graduates, Harvey didn't have the time to go back to full-time study.

More than 600 people have received degrees and other qualifications by RPL since 2006 through Otago Polytechnic. Qualifications by RPL are also available through Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT) and Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology (CPIT). When RPL was first trialled at Otago Polytech, the feedback from candidates was that it was an enriching process that recognised what the candidates knew and understood, says deputy chief executive Dr Robin Day. "It allowed them to explore their own learning in a way that was highly reflective."

Despite pre-conceptions by the public and other academics, the quality and standards of the RPL graduates far exceeded that of the equivalent-taught graduates and some have been invited back to give lectures to taught students, says Day.

Many of the candidates had left school in the 60s and 70s without qualifications but had succeeded in industry. For the pilot programme, candidates who showed an ability towards reflective thinking were chosen, says Day.

Typically, preparation for a degree Learning that's based in the real world

STAMP OF SUCCESS: Careers adviser Kate Harvey said the process of getting her degree was empowering. PICTURE / TED BAGHURST

by RPL through Otago Polytech takes about six months. Facilitators interact with the candidates, face to face, by telephone, email or Skype.

In Cherrington's case, his facilitator came up to Auckland in person part way through the process and gave him a "huge bollocking" for not pulling finger and doing the preparation.

This was enough to get him on the straight and narrow and focused on his preparation.

The assessment itself is done in person at Otago Polytech in front of a mixture of academic staff and industry practitioners and takes about four to five hours.

In cases where the candidates are not deemed to have met the degree standards, they are assessed to determine how they can fill the gaps, says Day. This often involves doing workshops or courses. Or they may be assessed to second-year level and required to go on and complete year three by campus or distance study.

The degree costs $6000 for fees plus transport and accommodation for the assessment, which is the equivalent cost to one year of full-time study.

Preparing material for the oral assessment of the Bachelor of Applied Management was very similar to writing a dissertation, says Bailey, who has a previous degree in sociology. It required her to analyse previous experience and document it.

"It took me 12 months and I spent eight to 16 hours a month for that year working on it."

Bailey says the degree is a reflection of the work she did in taking the trust from being part of the Spectrum Care Trust to being fully independent. She reviewed this transition as part of her degree assessment preparation and that review helped her clarify her thinking around the process. That is not an unusual experience says Day. "People who have been through the [RPL] process say they came back a better employee, having really sharpened up what they know."

It is not just applied management degrees available by RPL at Otago Polytech. Most of its qualifications are available by RPL in totality or in part. Only midwifery is totally excluded.

The most popular Otago Polytech RPL courses, other than applied management, are:

Bachelor of Information Technology.

Bachelor of Fashion Design.

Bachelor of Communication Design.

Otago Polytech is currently running a pilot programme for a National Diploma in Building Control Survey level 5 and 6. It is aimed at building inspectors employed by councils who will, under the terms of the Building Act, need to become qualified.

There are some people both in and outside of academia who view RPL in the same vein as witchcraft, says MIT's assessment manager. Quentin Williams. He says just because academic institutions have always awarded degrees in certain ways doesn't mean they are the only valid approaches.

The concept of recognition of prior learning, says Williams, can be likened to free-range learning. Taken to the logical extreme, experiences in the real world are often more valuable than book learning and tangible measurements of that experience can be made.

"This isn't about trying to put square pegs in round holes. It's, 'let's measure accurately what you have learned and how it fits into the framework of the qualification'."

Williams says that the process of recognition of prior learning can be constructive for candidates who are struggling with identifying what they have done that is relevant to the qualification. "In Auckland, Counties Manukau and New Zealand there are a large number of people who are resistant to getting involved in education because they think they are crap at it and they are thick."

Otago Polytech was the first cab off the rank in New Zealand. But there are overseas institutions such as Excelsior College in the United States which have offered it for many years.