A Basic Guide to UK Qualification Levels

Understanding the qualification frameworks and how they compare with one another will help you make a more informed decision regarding your training and development needs, especially as there is still some confusion over the UK qualification levels, and how they compare with one another.

This is in part due to the issue relating to qualifications that can be studied at the same level, but are available in Award, Certificate and Diploma, add to this the addition of the Extended Diploma and you have a more complicated qualification system.

In an attempt to simplify the available qualifications, and as a way to make it easier to compare them, qualifications became regulated and were mandated to appear on The Register of Regulated Qualifications, which contains details of Recognised Awarding Organisations, as well as Regulated Qualifications in England (Ofqual), Wales (Welsh Government) and Northern Ireland (Ofqual for vocational qualifications and CCEA Accreditation for all other qualifications).

The following diagram has been produced by Ofqual as a reference aid to help people compare qualifications:


Comparing Qualification Levels Diagram


Regulated qualifications use the rules of the Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF), which creates a more flexible approach to gaining a qualification. These qualifications are made up of units and each unit has its own credit value, which is awarded when the unit is complete. The credit value also gives an indication of how long it will normally take to prepare for a unit or qualification, as the number of credits given to a unit is determined by the number of notional hours of study – 1 credit equals approximately 10 hours of notional learning.

Units build up into qualifications, and QCF provides three types: Award, Certificate and Diploma (Please note: Extended Diplomas are still Diplomas, just with extra work). The difference between the qualification types is:


Descriptors Credit Values Notional Hours Guide
Award 1-12 less than 130 hours
Certificate 13-36 130 to 360 hours
Diploma 37+ 370 hours


Furthermore, units and qualifications are given a level based upon their difficulty, ranging from entry level to level 8. In addition, the title of the qualification will tell you its size and level, providing an indication to the amount of work needed and how long it will take to complete.

It should be noted at this point that there is also the National Qualifications Framework (NQF), and this framework is used for those qualifications that do not meet the rules of QCF. The NQF provides an indication of the relative demand of different qualifications, the same as QCF, in that NQF qualifications are grouped together according to their difficulty, and range from entry level to level 8. The levels of the NQF are based on the standards of knowledge, skill and competence needed for each qualification.

As a way to further assist with the comparison of qualification levels between the NQF, QCF and Higher Education frameworks, the following has been adapted from a table by Ofqual:


Comparison of qualification levels between the NQF and QCF frameworks