National Qualifications Framework (NQF)

As skills are seen as the gateway to economic opportunity and social mobility, it is essential to ensure fairness, quality and flexibility of learning opportunities across a range of formats. This is the purpose of the NQF, which is aimed at standardising, within certain limits, the education and training system. This includes institutional types of education and occupational (work related) skills development, including vocational learning, apprenticeships, internships and learnerships.

 The NQF provides the scaffolding of the education system and was to promote an egalitarian educational system, which facilitated mobility and progression within education, training and career paths and to redress past unfair discrimination in education by recognising prior learning.  The framework also ensures quality within the system, as learners are able to review programmes against a standard framework of measurement.

 The NQF originated from the living wage struggles and student uprisings of the 1970’s. Employers rejected demands for wage increases by workers on the grounds that workers did not have the skills to earn higher wages. In 1989, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) formed a focus group to develop recommendations for transforming skills development. This research group identified the link between skills and salary gradings and confirmed the importance of basic education, so that workers could access skills development opportunities. These recommendations were adopted into COSATU’s formal policy in July 1991.

Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO’s) were also developing innovative responses to these education and training challenges, which resulted in the National Education Policy Initiative (NEPI) of 1992. This initiative called for more detailed proposals for the restructuring of the formal education system and proposed a unified system of education and training that embodied democratic principles to redress past imbalances. The need for an integrated system was also identified by the task team established in 1992 by the Department of Manpower and the trade union federations. This growing consensus resulted in an interministerial working group being established to draft an NQF bill, which became the South African Qualifications act of 1995.

The NQF is based on the South African Qualification Authority (SAQA) Act of 1995 and is an overarching structure, aimed at bringing together schooling, industrial training and higher education into a single qualifications framework. The SAQA act provided for an outcomes based system, where skills and knowledge could be measured against “socially agreed standards”, to provide a uniform system for quality management.

In 2000, 25 SETA’s were established to regulate the qualifications provided to employees. The SETA/NQF model of quality assurance was based on decentralised assessment where individual institutions are accredited to offer specific, registered qualifications. Each SETA has its own requirements for the accreditation of providers within its sector, which have to design learning programmes aligned to the registered qualifications and ensure assessment and moderation to ensure quality assurance of the system.

The development of an NQF is in line with international best practice, with 12% of countries having established frameworks, and a total of 53% of countries involved in developing frameworks (including the 12% of countries which have already established a framework). This practice is supported by international bodies, including the International Labour Organisation (ILO), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the European Commission.

The principles of the NQF include:

      Opening access to education for adults who missed out on previous learning opportunities.

      Making the learning system more transparent and accountable.

      Integrating the many different components and unifying them under the NQF principles.

      Allowing learners to transfer credits from one course to another and from one part of the system to another.

      Recognising skills acquired through experience as well as through traditional study.

The first five years of the NQF required substantial work to develop unit standards, register qualifications and guidelines on a range of topics. Simultaneously, an entire provider accreditation system had to be developed as part of the quality assurance of the delivery and assessment of skills development programmes and learnerships. The unprecedented scale of change being effected resulted in the inevitable criticism of the newly developed system.

This criticism of the NQF centred on:

      Having more impact on discussion than practice;

      For being restrictive, bureaucratic and focused on the old style of learning;

      For being unduly complex with elaborate standards being proliferated by quality assurance bodies;

      For the low level of people actually trained and certificated.

The OECD review confirmed criticism of the NQF as “complex, slow, costly and over bureaucratic” with expressed concern over the management of SAQA, particularly regarding the number of existing qualifications (10 000) and the mismatch between graduate skills and the skills required by the market.

The structure of the National Qualification Framework





Higher Education



Occupational Awards




National Skills Certificate







Higher Certificate




Further Education

National Senior Certificate


Adult FET Certificate L4


Grade 11


Level 3


Grade 10


Level 2


General Education and Training

Grade 9


GET Certificate L1



This criticism resulted in a review process, including “the report of the study team on the implementation of the NQF” (April 2002), followed by “An interdependent NQF System consultative document” (July 2003). These reviews informed the development of the Joint Policy Statement of the Ministers of Education and Labour. During the review process, SAQA ran out of its European Union start-up funding and the uncertainty and disputes arising from the review resulted in an operational paralysis.

The disagreement centred on the principle of one integrated qualification framework for academic, vocational and occupational learning, which was energised by the traditional divide between the discipline-based academic learning and skills development.22 The intrinsic differences arising between academic, vocational and occupational learning created a permanent potential for conflict. An example of this conflict is the overlapping and conflicting roles and responsibilities of the 31 ETQA quality assurance bodies.

The original NQF developed within South Africa was unique in that it covered all education sub-frameworks and learning contexts, with a common set of qualification types and level descriptions. This resulted in a complex structure which presented implementation challenges. The Joint Policy Statement confirmed the intention of preserving a single national qualifications framework, while allowing greater independence for institution based learning and work based learning. This statement informed the development of the Skills Development Bill (2008). The revised NQF bill (Republic of South Africa, 2008) aims at addressing these issues to improve the framework and provides for a more loosely integrated framework.

The NQF is now organised into three distinct sub-frameworks:

      The General and Further Education and Training Qualifications Framework (GFETQF), which is the responsibility of the DoE.

      The Higher Education Qualifications Framework (HEQF), which is also the responsibility of the DoE.

      The Occupational Qualifications Framework (OQF), which is the responsibility of the Department of Labour (DoL).

Each sub-framework has its own quality assurance body and is required to collaborate and co-ordinate with the other frameworks to maintain the principles of the NQF.


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