The NQF in South Africa

The NQF is the abbreviation for the National Qualifications Framework.

South Africa is one of many countries worldwide who have chosen to develop a national qualification framework in which skills and knowledge activities may be organised and recognised.

These frameworks share many commonalities and are key to assisting with the global recognition of learning through articulation processes.

Other countries who use an NQF are New Zealand, Australia, Mauritius, Seychelles, Malaysia, Philippines, Rwanda, Hong Kong SAR, India, Maldives, United Republic of Tanzania, Mexico, Norway and Ireland. In total, more than 143 countries are migrating to a unified meta-framework similar to the South African NQF. The ideology is to give credible, comparative recognition to learning globally.

The Vision of the NQF

It is a single, comprehensive and integrated system, approved by the Ministers of Basic Education, Higher Education and Training and Labour that:

  • classifies,
  • registers,
  • publicises and
  • articulates

national quality assured qualifications according to the principles and guidelines of descriptors for ten levels of education, training and/or development, to enable national recognition of acquired skills and knowledge for all learners. The NQF unifies the efforts of education, training and development through its activities and encourages lifelong learning and the recognition thereof.

All learning, which contributes to the development of a more skilled society, is integrated into the NQF, thus enabling recognition of learning achievements for learners of varied talent, interest, effort and ability. It is therefore a key element to building the value of learning into the fibre of society and fuses together, on a single framework, the knowledge, skills and attitudes and values of people learning at work, in colleges, universities, schools and any other learning body and/or institution.

Principles, Guidelines and Objectives of the NQF

Through the principles and guidelines of the NQF, access to learning and qualifications is made possible for learners from all environments, whether formal, informal or non-formal. It also provides mobility between qualifications, vocations and careers to ensure that skills and knowledge are retained and valued, even when learners move between careers, qualifications and vocations. These achievements are recorded on the National Learner Record Database (NLRD).

The NQF and Quality Education, Training and Development

The quality of education and training is enhanced across all education, training and development initiatives, because of a standardised and benchmarked set of level descriptors, guidelines, objectives and quality management expectations are brought together through the specific learning achievements expected at each NQF level in terms of:

  • scope of knowledge
  • knowledge literacy
  • method and procedure
  • problem solving
  • ethics and professional practice
  • accessing, processing and managing information
  • producing and communicating information
  • context and systems
  • management of learning
  • accountability

The NQF and Democracy

Finally, the NQF was designed to redress unfair practices in historic education, training and employment opportunities, thus embracing the essence of democracy within education, training and development for every member of society.

These guidelines and principles for quality in education, training and development (ETD) required that all providers register with the relevant Departments of Education, implement quality management systems and seek accreditation through the appropriate Council. Therefore, registration and accreditation is critical when choosing a provider, whether public, private, non-profit, societal or professional body.

The NQF and Qualifications

All registered and valid qualifications are made public after rigorous, evaluative and consultation processes, on the website of the South African Qualifications Authority.

The NQF and Accreditation

Accreditation for providers are categorised in terms of their delivery focus. All offerings of ETD that result in the achievement of GET grades and levels accredit through Umalusi. Accreditation through Umalusi is typically for the institution and therefore focuses on the entire spectrum of activities that constitute the quality management of education, training and learning activities. In this case, individual programme approval is not considered, but subsumed and quality assured as a whole, in terms of the provider.  

Occupationally directed qualifications (Occupational Certificates), trades, learnerships, apprentices and work-based learning require accreditation through the QCTO (Quality Council for Trades and Occupations).

Prior to 31 March 2018, accreditation of these occupationally-directed and trade qualifications were associated with the various Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs). The SETAs accredited a provider and granted programme approval for a specific occupationally-directed qualification. Therefore, a singular qualification would be quality assured and approved. A provider offering a bouquet of qualifications would thus seek programme approval for every single qualification independently.  

As from 1 April 2018, the QCTO, who is responsible and mandated to quality assure all qualifications that are occupationally-directed, trade related or workplace driven and award accreditation status to providers, which offer these.

AET is excluded from this arrangement and Umalusi is the only body sanctioned to accredit such providers.

Since the QCTO manages an exceptionally large constituency for industry, they have designated certain quality assurance functions to professional bodies, with whom they collaborate to award qualifications within the ambit of the professional body.

In ETD, the Chartered Institute for Professional Practitioners and Trainers (CIPPT) is a duly registered and recognised professional body awarding occupationally directed qualification to professionals in the field of education, training and development.

These professional bodies are registered with SAQA and participate in developing and enhancing quality qualifications within the profession. They also evaluate and award professionals accordingly, which further assists with setting standards within a particular industry.  

For private and public Higher Education and Training provision, the Council on Higher Education and Training (CHET) occupies the space for accreditation and quality assurance. Their scope of quality assurance starts at NQF 5 and ends at NQF 10. This is the only council that may award qualifications at NQF 9 and 10. All public and private universities (and other higher education and training providers) have to meet the criteria for accreditation of the CHE so that all qualifications meet the national standard for the particular discipline.

Credits and Notional Hours

A credit often relates to the number of notional hours required to learn a specific set of knowledge, skill, attitude and values. In other words, it is the time an average learner requires to master the volume of work and activities for a particular set of knowledge, skills and attitudes and values set out in a curriculum to have a fair, valid and reliable chance to successfully complete a qualification.

Most international frameworks, including the South African National Qualifications Framework, formulate that one credit is calculated as ten notional hours and therefore programme durations are determined accordingly i.e.:

120 credits = 120 x 10
= 1 200 notional hours are required to complete a full qualification, which in general, calculates to a 12 month period

Typical activities included in mastering the learning in terms of notional hours are:

  • Direct contact time with teachers, trainers and/or tutors
  • Time spent studying in groups or individually
  • Time spent compiling and completing assignments
  • Time spent undertaking practical tasks
  • Time spent in formative and summative assessment

Part qualifications and skills programmes carry less credits, but form part of a possible qualification. Credits accumulated through part qualifications and skills programmes may be combined to result in a full qualification, should the combination of part qualifications meet the requirements of a particular qualification and its associated quality council.

The Sub-Frameworks

Three sub-frameworks have been established to serve the main streams of education and training, which is the formal and the occupation and/or trade frameworks. These sub-frameworks in part, unite and divide formal and/or academic type qualifications from occupation and/or trade type qualifications.

Simplified Diagram of the NQF and Sub-Frameworks

The Sub-Framework for General and Further Education and Training (GENFETQSF)

The Council for General and Further Education and Training, known as Umalusi, manages the sub-framework for GENFET (General and Further Education and Training). They standardise and govern the GENFET sub-framework, working towards providing education and training that offers learners opportunity to access both the Occupational Qualifications Sub-Framework (OQSF) and link in with the demands of Higher Education Qualifications Sub-Framework (HEQSF).

The Sub-Framework for Occupations and Trades (OQSF)

The Qualification Council for Trades and Occupations (QCTO) is designated to manage all development, quality assurance and qualification of all learnerships, apprenticeships, occupational learning and trades, including the regulation of the assessment for these qualifications. These qualifications connect on the Occupation Qualification Sub-Framework (OQSF).

Within this sub-framework, qualifications, known as Occupational Certificates and Trade Certificates are awarded to learners completing education, training and development activities that are built around the occupation or trade. Should a learner want to move qualifications horizontally to access learning offered by the HEQSF, an articulation path, coupled with activities such as recognition for prior learning (RPL) is the route to follow to enable access to diplomas and degrees.

The Sub-Framework for Higher Education and Training

The Higher Education and Training sub-framework (HEQSF) allows for HET qualifications from vocational, professional and general learning routes, which give clear articulation pathways between qualifications in this band.
The Council for Higher Education (CHE, describes the sub-framework as follows:”The revised HEQSF, in line with the previous framework, provides the basis for integrating all higher education qualifications into the National Qualifications Framework (NQF). It provides a basis for standards development and quality assurance. It provides a mechanism for improving the coherence of the higher education system and indicates the articulation routes between qualifications, thereby enhancing the flexibility of the system and enabling students to move more efficiently over time from one programme to another as they pursue their academic or professional careers.”

The Bands of the NQF

Three bands of education, training and development, known as the GET, FET and HET Bands, partition the meta-framework of the NQF in terms of purpose, scope, complexity and competence:

  • General Education and Training Band (GET Band)
  • Further Education and Training Band (FET Band)
  • Higher Education and Training Band (HET Band)

Qualifications on the NQF (or any of its sub-frameworks), have to meet the minimum requirement of earning a learning a minimum of 120 credits.

The GET Band of the NQF

The General Education and Training Band (GET), ends at Grade 9 for learners attending formal schooling or AET Level 4 for adult learners. It is also known as the first exit level of the NQF and Grade 9 learners at school and adult learners in formal, informal or non-formal learning earn a comparable GET certificate. The condition comparability stems from the South African Constitution and is a basic human right.

NQF 1 comprises:

  • all grades from R to 9 in schools and
  • all levels in adult learning, from 1 to 4

General Education and Training Band and Umalusi6

The General Education and Training Band, forms the conceptual foundation for all learning and is a critical level in ensuring success for learning in subsequent bands.

Umalusi, the Council for Quality Assurance in General and Further Education, is the custodian of the sub-framework that organises learning in General and Further Education and Training and ensures quality within this framework, according to the conditions of the National Qualifications Framework Act 67 of 2008 and the General and Further Education and Training Quality Assurance Act 58 of 2001.

The Minister of Basic Education appoints the members of the Umalusi Council, who also answers to the Minister of Higher Education and Training in terms of FET qualifications.

Umalusi quality assures and certifies the following qualifications, from various channels of learning, within the GENFET sub-framework:

Umalusi takes on the tasks of developing and evaluating qualifications and curricula to a specific and expected standard, which will be accepted and recognised internationally. They continuously research quality in their framework and implements good practice through their accreditation process.

They moderate assessments according to the principles of fairness, validity and reliability and verify the authenticity of assessments that relate to the GENFET Sub-Framework.


In the schooling system, whether it is homeschooling, public or private schooling, the levels of learning are called grades, starting at the preparatory level, Grade R, and learners passing through this system do so in an academic year until they reach Grade 9. A national examination takes place at the end of grade 9, which is the General Education and Training Certificate for schools.

Learners may then choose to continue learning by entering grade 10 or exit school and move into learning at a Further Education and Training (FET) college and/or Technical and Vocational Education and Training College (TVET), where they are able to follow a series of qualifications that will result in a trade, vocational or occupational qualification.

Adult Education and Training (AET)

Traditionally, AET was known as Adult Basic Education and Training (ABET), which is seated in the GET band and comparable to what the schooling system offers.

The White Paper on Post-School Education and Training (published in 2013), marked the change of the terms from Adult Basic Education and Training (ABET) to Adult Education and Training (AET). Although the name was changed, qualifications and the need for developing the foundation of learning for adult learners were not affected.

Essentially, there are direct correlations between the outcomes that need to be achieved in adult learning and the curricula for schools, so that the challenge of functional illiteracy may be addressed and remedied in order to inspire learners on a path for lifelong learning.

It is important to understand the notion of functional literacy, which is having sufficient reading and writing skills in a language to manage daily living and employment tasks that require reading skills beyond a basic level. Much of this has to do with the ability to read fluently with understanding and write fluently with purpose.

Illiteracy, on the other hand, is the inability to read or write in a language and often includes the inability to perform the mechanics of writing or reading. If a person moves to a foreign country where he/she is unable to converse or read in the language of that particular society, he/she is considered illiterate in that particular language. It is thus safe to assume that every human being is literate in language A, B and C, but illiterate in language X, Y and Z.  

Functional English refers to how well someone can command English to perform a specific function. In South Africa, it is often considered a foundation subject, since English is a key language for academic study, lifelong learning and career progression. It is especially significant for developing vocation language and terminology, which falls within the branch of learning English for a Specific Purpose (ESP).

The typical placement of learners in the GET Band of the National Qualifications Framework is as follows:

For example, a learner placed at Adult Education and Training (AET) 1 will typically develop similar skills to those at school learning at grade 1, 2 or 3.

Learners within the GET band may be classified as semi-literate or functionally illiterate.

AET is a fast track for adults to catch up with education and training that they have not yet completed or have regressed in, its philosophy is based on the nature of the adult learner, who is more motivated, and life experienced to learn at a faster pace that the less experienced learner at school. The audience for learning in AET is the adult learner, whom already engages in civil society and socio-economic activities. Therefore, their motivation, life experience and need to learn commonly enable them to learn at a faster pace.

NQF Level 1 is the first level of the NQF and forms the General Education and Training Band and it is the first exit level for any learner, whether it is scholar, student or learner. For schools, Grade 9 is where NQF Level 1 finishes and learners may leave the formal schooling system at this level with their GETC or General Education and Training Certificate.

For adults, the formal exit qualification is known as the GETCA, which is the General Education and Training Certificate for Adults. It consists of four subjects of which the two compulsory subjects are a language, ideally English, and Mathematics or Mathematical Literacy. The other two subjects may be chosen from learning areas such as Economics and Management Sciences, Life Orientation, Human and Social Sciences, Computer Applications Technology, Natural Sciences and others similar to those found in schools. Each subject carries a weight of 30 credits to meet the minimum requirements of 120 credits for a recognized qualification.

Should a learner want to engage in learning at a university later on, the GETCA is the perfect qualification to complete, followed by the NASCA (National Senior Certificate for Adults) in the GET Band. However, there are other GETC’s or comparable qualifications that may be accessed through the framework of the Quality Council for Trades and Occupations, called the OQF (Occupational Qualifications Framework). An adult learner working through this pathway will typically complete AET levels up to NQF 1, and then complete the FLC (Foundational Learning Certificate), which is a part-qualification at NQF 2, before engaging with further occupationally-directed learning. The FLC is a compulsory entry requirement in the occupationally-directed and trade framework.

It is important to note that NQF 1 is seen as the conceptual foundation to lifelong learning and without a sufficiently developed NQF 1; learners are challenged to proceed successfully to subsequent NQF levels of learning.

The FET Band of the NQF

The Further Education and Training Band of the NQF includes levels 2, 3 and 4 of the NQF.  TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) Colleges, high schools and private FET providers form part of the delivery mechanism for this band.

In this band of the NQF, a significant amount of qualifications, part qualifications and skills programmes exist to increase and improve skills development in South Africa. These qualifications are quality assured by:

  • QCTO, where they related to occupations, trades, apprenticeships and/or learnerships
  • Umalusi, where formal, academic qualifications (such as grade 10, 11 and 12, the National Certificate Vocational, National Senior Certificate and the National Senior Certificate for Adults)

While the GET bands establish the foundation for lifelong learning and sets the learner up for subsequent learning, the FET band is a significant band for learners to realise their journey in lifelong learning.

At the FET Band, the learner develops more breadth and depth in his or her learning, which increase their understanding and application of knowledge, skills, attitudes and values.

Level descriptors within this level show the progression towards a well-rounded individual, better equipped with knowledge and skills to make a larger contribution to the socio-economic environment.

Ideally, learners should not seize learning efforts after achieving an exit certificate at FET (i.e. NQF 4), but aspire to engage in education, training and development at HET.

In terms of the OQSF, access to learning within the FET band is pre-ceded by achieving a Foundational Learning Certificate (FLC), which is a part-qualification earning 40 credits at NQF 2. The FLC develops learning in the two fundamental subjects of language and quantitative so that learners are better equipped to engage with the learning engagement for their particular occupation and/or trade.

The HET Band of the NQF

The Council for Higher Education (CHE) manages the efforts of universities (public and private) in the Higher Education and Training Band. Typical qualifications at the HET band that resorts under the CHE are bachelors, honours, masters and doctorate degrees from NQF 5 to NQF 10.

Awards for Qualifications, Part-qualifications and Other Registered Programmes

Only an accredited and registered assessment and/or professional body that have been legally designated to issue certificates may issue all awards for education and training efforts such as certificates, diplomas and degrees. No provider, public or private is authorized to issue or promise to issue such awards unless they are deemed an accredited assessment body or Assessment Quality Partner.

Providers of learning assessing learners’ efforts may issue a statement of result (not a certificate or diploma), detailing exactly what has been assessed in terms of a qualification, part qualification and/or skills programme and this must be done only after an assessor and moderator, registered against the particular qualification, has assessed and moderated the work of the learner.

Assessors and moderators must first and fore mostly be registered at the ETDP SETA (Education, Training and Development Practices Sector Education and Training Authority) to certify that they are qualified in assessment and moderation practices. Thereafter, the assessor and moderator must seek registration against the qualification and/or part qualification at the SETA, where the qualification originates from, until this function is absorbed into the QCTO.