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Qualification levels explained

Gaining a professional qualification is a great way to improve your career prospects and increase your potential earnings. However with a wide range of different courses and learning types available, it can be a daunting experience choosing the course that's right for you.

To help resolve this, qualifications have been categorised into national frameworks, which are classified as follows:

  • National Qualifications Framework
  • Qualifications and Credit Framework
  • Framework for Higher Education Qualifications

These frameworks are broken down into several separate levels. The qualifications contained in these cover a range of different topics, but are intended to give you an idea of the demands of each one and their intensity.

National Qualifications Framework

The National Qualifications Framework (NQF) outlines the level at which a qualification can be recognised by regulators in England, Northern Ireland and Wales.

All NQF qualifications are accredited by three regulators for these countries in order to demonstrate that they are of a high quality, both for learners and for employers.

Although all NQF qualifications are still valid, they have been replaced by the newer Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF), with any student undertaking a qualification from September 2011 doing so under the newer system.

Find out more about NQFs »

Qualifications and Credit Framework

The Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF) is now the standard for tracking the different qualification levels, and also contains vocational (or work-related) qualifications, available in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

All qualifications in this framework are made up of units that are worth credits representing learning time (one credit = 10 hours of learning time). These can be studied at your own pace and built up to full qualifications of different sizes over time.

There are three different sizes of QCF qualification:

  • awards (1 to 12 credits)
  • certificates (13 to 36 credits)
  • diplomas (37 credits or more).

Units and qualifications range in difficulty, from entry level to level 8 (similar to the levels in the NQF).

Find out more about QCFs »

Qualifications by level across the NQF and QCF
Level Examples of NQF qualifications Examples of QCF qualifications
Entry level
  • Entry level certificates
  • English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL)
  • Skills for Life
  • Functional Skills at entry level (English, maths and ICT)
  • Awards, Certificates, and Diplomas at entry level
  • Foundation Learning at entry level
  • Functional Skills at entry level
Level 1
  • GCSEs grades D-G
  • BTEC Introductory Diplomas and Certificates
  • OCR Nationals
  • Key Skills at level 1
  • Skills for Life
  • Functional Skills at level 1
  • BTEC Awards, Certificates, and Diplomas at level 1
  • Functional Skills at level 1
  • Foundation Learning Tier pathways
  • NVQs at level 1
Level 2
  • GCSEs grades A*-C
  • Key Skills level 2
  • Skills for Life
  • Functional Skills at level 2
  • BTEC Awards, Certificates, and Diplomas at level 2
  • Functional Skills at level 2
  • OCR Nationals
  • NVQs at level 2
Level 3
  • A levels
  • GCE in applied subjects
  • International Baccalaureate
  • Key Skills level 3
  • BTEC Awards, Certificates, and Diplomas at level 3
  • BTEC Nationals
  • OCR Nationals
  • NVQs at level 31
Level 4
  • Certificates of Higher Education
  • BTEC Professional Diplomas Certificates and Awards
  • HNCs
  • NVQs at level 4
Level 5
  • HNCs and HNDs
  • Other higher diplomas
  • HNDs
  • BTEC Professional Diplomas, Certificates and Awards
Level 6
  • National Diploma in Professional Production Skills
  • BTEC Advanced Professional Diplomas, Certificates and Awards
  • BTEC Advanced Professional Diplomas, Certificates and Awards
Level 7
  • Diploma in Translation
  • BTEC Advanced Professional Diplomas, Certificates and Awards
  • BTEC Advanced Professional Diplomas, Certificates and Awards
  • NVQs at level 5 (in the QCF framework)
Level 8
  • Specialist awards
  • Award, Certificate and Diploma in strategic direction

Framework for Higher Education Qualifications

The Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ) describes the main higher education qualifications - degrees, diplomas, certificates and other academic awards granted by a university or higher education college.

The FHEQ generally match up with levels 4 to 8 of the QCF, and are as follows:

FHEQ level Example of qualifications
Level 4
  • Certificates of higher education
  • Higher national certificates
Level 5
  • Diplomas of higher education
  • Foundation Degrees
  • Higher national diplomas
Level 6
  • Bachelors degrees
  • Bachelors degrees with honours
  • Graduate certificates and diplomas
  • Professional Graduate Certificate in Education
Level 7
  • Masters degrees
  • Integrated masters degrees
  • Postgraduate certificates
  • Postgraduate diplomas
Level 8
  • Doctoral degrees

Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework

The Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) is the national credit transfer system for all levels of qualifications in Scotland.

Although theoretically similar to the QCF structure followed in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, there are some key differences; Instead of the standard eight levels employed by the QCFs, The SCQF has 12 levels ranging from Access at SCQF level 1, up to Doctorate at Level 12.

Once again, levels and qualifications range in difficulty, but are given to demonstrate as a guideline to see how your qualifications can progress.

View Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework

Find out more about SCQFs »