Academic vs professional qualifications


Gizelle McIntyre | Director | The Institute of People Development | | |

Whilst both academic and professional qualifications are recognised and controlled by the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) and both are indicative of a certain level of achievement, the levels of recognition of these forms of qualification are not always on par 

Although there are various differences between the two, is this distinction in recognition correct, or is too much impetus being placed on academics alone? Not all qualifications are equal, even though this is the primary vision and mission of the NQF.

Perhaps a better approach would be for the two to work together to produce a skilled workforce that has both an academic knowledge of the job at hand and the real-world skills to perform the tasks required. Should the good of the country not be the driving force behind education and training, rather than the size of our egos?


There are various fundamental differences between these forms of qualification. An academic qualification involves the study of a subject with an academic discipline and (hopefully) research focus. The overriding purpose of this qualification is a contribution to the learner’s specialised knowledge of a subject and not necessarily the application thereof.

The purpose of a professional qualification is to impart knowledge, understanding and practical experience to the learner to enable the learner to apply the knowledge in a practical manner, in a professional practice.

This obviously leads to a completely different set of skills, each with different purposes and contexts for the world of work.


A learner at The Institute of People Development (IPD) recently asked why the NQF level 5 National Diploma in ETDP was taking her longer and was more difficult than her NQF level 9 qualification from an academic institution.

The answer is quite simple; in order to prove competence in an occupationally directed professional qualification it must be proven that the learner has knowledge and understanding of the theory (foundational competence), that the learner has the ability to apply that knowledge and understanding practically (practical competence), and that the learner has the ability to apply that knowledge, understanding and practical skill in an ever changing environment (reflexive competence).

On the one hand, a professional qualification is usually made up of…

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