Comparing NFQ Level 6 awards in higher and further education and training


A new report by QQI has revealed few differences and many similarities when comparing further and higher education awards which both exist at Level 6 on the National Framework of Qualifications.

There are separate further and higher education awards at NFQ Level 6 - the Advanced Certificate (FE) and the Higher Certificate (HE).  Historically, there has been a perception that achieving the Higher Certificate, as opposed to the Advanced Certificate, will increase a learner’s chance of progressing to higher education awards at Level 7 and above.

In 2020, QQI commissioned Ecctis, the operators of the UK National Information Centre for the recognition and evaluation of international qualifications and skills, to determine whether there is a  significant difference between the learning associated with the Advanced Certificate programme cycle and the higher certificate programme as implemented at level 6 on the National Framework of Qualifications.

Dr Padraig Walsh, CEO of QQI said,

The findings and recommendations contained within this report are significant and will be of great interest to government, funding authorities, education and training providers, learners, parents and indeed policy makers concerned about the relevance of qualifications in our system when looking to the future.   

They provide a starting point from which the whole sector, higher education and further education alike, can share space in considering whether there is a continued rationale for both awards to be offered and what subsequent policy developments these decisions may entail.  We are grateful to the engagement of the sector through the work of the Stakeholder Steering Group, provider focus groups which identified key issues, and to the Higher Education Authority and SOLAS for contributing to the funding of this work.’

Report findings

Key findings of Ecctis final report suggest that:

  • both the Advanced Certificate and Higher Certificate qualifications are appropriately aligned to NFQ Level 6 in terms of achieved learner outcomes;
  • there is a difference in the distribution of NFQ sub-strands between the AC and HC programmes sampled.  Whilst the number of sub-strands at Level 5 was comparable for the AC and HC samples respectively, the number of sub-strands at Level 7 was significantly higher for the HC programmes overall (18 for the sample of HCs vs 6 for the sample of ACs).
  • entry requirements did not identify a significant difference in the educational level of entrants to either set of programmes sampled.
  • the durations of the AC and HC cycles are broadly comparable in that they are at least two academic years fulltime but there are different credit systems and therefore different notional hours of learner effort required 2400 hours for the AC cycle and at least 3000 hours for the HC (based on 120 ECTS).

Recommendations for providers

The authors suggest that providers consider a number of factors as part of their programme development:

  • Duration and entry requirements
    • Calculating and including a full breakdown of the total number of independent study hours within course handbooks.
  • Assessment
    • Devising and implementing more detailed levels of performance indicators to use in tandem with model answers for open-ended assessment tasks.
  • Qualification Design
    • Reviewing the levels assigned to Stage 1 HE modules (ie Level 6), and assigning credits at this level, particularly in the case of first year semester 1 modules.
    • SOLAS could consider how best to integrate NFQ sub-strand learning outcomes at Level 6 across the design and delivery of their apprenticeship programmes, whilst also matching the intended aims and objectives of the apprenticeship programmes.
    • All providers could consider adopting overarching learning outcomes linked broadly to the NFQ to facilitate a consistent approach to programme design across institutions.
  • Associated Outcomes
    • Providers could consider collating progression data to inform a clearer picture of progression routes for Level 5, AC and HC graduates including to further qualifications and employment.

Recommendations for the National Framework of Qualifications

The report also identified a number of areas of consideration for the whole tertiary sector regarding how Level 6 qualifications relate to the NFQ.

  • Consider reviewing and revising the NFQ level descriptors, to incorporate references to enable levels to be clearly differentiated in terms of skill level and cognitive demand, while ensuring clearly defined progression and relevance to the sub-strands.
  • Consider the number of sub-strands and scope for sub-strands to be merged particularly in the case of competence, where there are four sub-strands as opposed to two for knowledge.
  • Consider whether the scope of the NFQ sub-strands of the award-type descriptors accurately reflect qualification provision at Level 5-Level 6.
  • Reconsider the feasibility of being able to demonstrate supervisory skills as being a typical outcome of learning at Level 6 in relation to competence, role.
  • Consider reviewing the NFQ descriptors so that they can applied more generally on a modular as well as on a qualification level, if it is intended that modules are to continue to be assigned credit levels.

Next steps

The Stakeholder Steering Group, responsible for supporting and steering the project, agreed that QQI would initiate preliminary Phase 2 explorations in consultation with the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, the Higher Education Authority and SOLAS.