Qualifications Explained

Qualification Terminology


There are many acronyms used in the field of education such as such as NQF, RQF, QCA, Ofqual, AO and APL.

Similarly qualifications come in many guises – such as Award, Certificate and Diploma

This often leads to confusion and misunderstanding. Hopefully we can help with some simple explanations:

Firstly, here are the meanings of those acronyms:

  • NQF - National Qualifications Framework (Replaced by RQF)
  • RQF - Qualifications and Credit Framework
  • QCA - Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (Replaced by Ofqual)
  • Ofqual - Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation
  • AO - Awarding Organisation
  • APL - Accredited Prior Learning

The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) are now responsible for the regulation of qualifications, examinations and assessments. All accredited qualifications are listed on the Ofqual Register of Regulated Qualifications.

Qualification Frameworks


The frameworks are systems that were developed to define and differentiate varying levels of qualifications. Within the frameworks you can compare and contrast levels against one another, and illustrate how one level can lead to the next, which sets out how all vocational qualifications will be structured, regulated, titled and quality assured.

In the past


The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) accredited qualifications, and approved and regulated Awarding Organisations (AO), such as ITEC. Qualifications run by these approved awarding bodies were on the National Qualifications Framework (NQF).



Although all NQF qualifications are still valid, the Qualifications and Credit Framework (RQF) is the new UK Government’s education framework, developed to replace the NQF for vocational-related qualifications within England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The NQF (National Qualification Framework) is still in existence – both NQF and RQF qualifications sit on The Register.

Units, Credits, Categories and Levels


In recent years there has been a move to a Credit-Based System resulting in the following system:

  • Qualifications on the RQF are made up of one or a number of units.
  • Each unit is awarded a number of credits.
  • The number of credits given to a unit is determined by the number of notional hours of study - 1 credit equals 10 hours of notional learning.

  • The total number of credits from all the units within a qualification determines whether the qualification is categorised as an Award, Certificate or Diploma.

  • Award = 1-12 credits
  • Certificate = 13-36 credits
  • Diploma = 37+ credits

Within each of these 3 categories the difficulty of the qualification is indicated by the level. There are 8 levels, Level 1 - Level 8, where Level 1 is the easiest and Level 8 is the most difficult. You could therefore feasibly have a Level 3 Award, Certificate and Diploma in the same subject. It means that the content was of the same difficulty to learn but fewer hours were required to learn it - indicating less content.

Advantage of accredited RQF qualifications:



Many units held on the RQF are used by different awarding organisations (AOs). The "sharing" of these units means that the credit awarded is accepted as accredited prior learning (APL) by other awarding organisations. Some units appear in more than one qualification and the credit can be transferred. This makes for more flexible career pathways with reduced repetition. The "sharing" also allows learners to gain credit towards qualifications from more than one AO. This also means you don’t have to repeat learning the same things unnecessarily.

Easier to understand


You can now look at a title and see how long and how difficult a qualification is. Employers will also be able to do the same.

Universally Recognised


Above all, a RQF qualification means you’ll have the skills and qualifications recognized throughout the industry. The most obvious advantage of accredited over non-accredited qualifications is that the accredited ones provide a guarantee of quality of both the qualification programme and the awarding body that offers accredited qualifications. Non-accredited qualifications, on the other hand, are not regulated and there is no guarantee that they meet appropriate standards. There is no way to tell whether they are fit for their purpose, if they include relevant content or if appropriate methodology for assessment is used.