Certificate, diploma, and degree: The difference! - Regenesys

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Certificate, diploma, and degree: The difference!

A certificate, diploma, or degree programme? Do you want to know which one will serve you better; which one will get you a better job, the much-desired promotion, and a better income?

You are not alone; many people are confused too!

Frequently, people hoping to get an education and progress to the next stage of their life and career find it confusing when it’s time to choose between the three options.

This confusion is not surprising considering that there are similarities in the course contents even though the length of time to complete each is different.

Furthermore, even though the topics covered in each programme may look alike – depending on the specific course, say, Business Administration, for instance – the depth and scope covered makes all the difference.

Who determines the differences?

Who determines the differences?In South Africa, classifying academic programmes on various levels is in the purview of the Department of Education and handled explicitly by the Office of the Minister of Education and Training as stipulated by section 8 (2) (e) of the National Qualifications Act, 2008.

The Minister of Education and Training is responsible for overseeing the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) as well as determining the qualifications structure of South Africa’s higher education system.

Correspondingly, the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) is in charge of developing policy and all the other criteria for registering standards and qualifications on the NQF on the recommendation of the Council on Higher Education (CHE).

In turn, the CHE is responsible for the development and management of the Higher Education Qualifications Sub-Framework (HEQSF) as well as advising the Minister of Education and Training on all matters that relate with the HEQSF.

It does not end there, though.

Professional bodies are also involved in classifying, accrediting, regulating, and licensing some certificate programmes as specified by the various frameworks that oversee their activities.

Such institutions are further tasked with determining whether a specific qualification meets current or proposed preset standards and requirements – and if such a qualification/certificate can be awarded to the public upon completion of the programme in question.

How are these qualifications categorised?

Knowing which level and category each programme is registered further expound on the similarities and differences of the different courses of study.

In South Africa, there are 11 higher education qualification types currently captured in the NQF framework. 

These are further split into two main categories: undergraduate qualifications and graduate qualifications.

Undergraduate Qualifications

  • Higher Certificate
  • Advanced Certificate
  •  Diploma
  • Advanced Diploma
  • Bachelor’s Degree


Postgraduate Qualifications

  • Postgraduate Diploma
  • Bachelor Honours Degree
  • Master’s Degree
  • Professional Master’s Degree
  • Doctoral Degree
  • Professional Doctorate

While these are the current ones recognised and awarded in South Africa, the Minister of Higher Education, on the advice of the CHE, may approve qualifications if/when such a need arises and is proven necessary.

Read also: What is an MBA?

What characteristics differentiate these qualifications?

To fully grasp the differences, it is essential to compare the 11 qualifications in a table format.

The table below highlights and compares the characteristics of undergraduate qualifications in South Africa.

characteristics of undergraduate qualifications in South Africa.The table below highlights and compares the characteristics of postgraduate qualifications in South Africa.

characteristics of postgraduate qualifications in South Africa.So, what is the difference between a certificate, diploma, and degree programme?

In a general sense, the difference between a certificate, diploma, and degree programme all boils down to four major factors – among other considerations:

  • The time it takes to complete each
  • The depth and scope covered in the curriculum
  • The institution awarding the qualification
  • The level on which each qualification is placed on the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) scale

Furthermore, a student will not be permitted to pursue a higher class of qualification unless he or she is qualified, having earned the total credits a lower level qualification requires.


A student receives a certificate after studying and completing several courses outlined in the curriculum.

Ideally, these programmes are industry-specific and are designed to empower people in their careers further.

These programmes come in 3-month, 6-month, or 1-year packages which, after completion, confirms that the holder of the certificate has acquired the requisite skills and knowledge in that particular field.

Such certificates do not necessarily lead to higher degrees. For instance, a Certificate in Cybersecurity or a certification in mobile phone repairs affirms that the holder is competent in that field; however, such a certificate is not a path to higher qualifications.

Candidates generally take these courses to improve their skills and prove to employers/clients that they have acquired and mastered such skills.

On the other hand, though, the Higher Certificate programme offered in South Africa is a bridge towards a higher qualification.

Students with High School Matric study for and take the exams mostly to get considered for entry into higher studies and qualifications like a Diploma, an Advanced Diploma, or even a Bachelor’s (in peculiar circumstances – like the Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) pathway).

Also, there are Graduate Certificate programmes; this option is entirely different from the Higher Certificate qualification.

These are mostly standalone programmes (or sometimes taken alongside degree programmes) that make the graduate more desirable in the employment market.


DiplomaDiploma is designed to prepare the candidate with specialised practical skills required to function optimally in a specific industry. In other words, this programme offers a comprehensive understanding that will enable the prospect to apply for available jobs in the industry and then perform creditably well on a day-to-day basis.

Professional Diploma is similar but mostly sought-after by candidates who are already working in a specific industry.

For instance, a worker who wants to upgrade his pay and climb the corporate ladder in the metalworks industry may need such a professional certification to achieve his goals.

A National Diploma, on the other hand, is a type of certification designed for people motivated enough to seek even higher qualifications in specific industries.

For example, getting a National Diploma in a technology-related field can open the door to acquiring a Bachelor of Technology degree just as a National Diploma in Nursing can lead to a degree in Nursing afterwards.

There is also the Advanced Diploma programme which provides entry-level vocational and professional preparation and specialisation for a bachelor’s degree.

It is usually focused and serves specific industries, as such, the Advanced Diploma is sought-after by graduates who wish to deepen their understanding in a particular field, thereby becoming a specialist who is more market-ready – employment-wise.

For example, a bachelor’s degree graduate in Taxation can apply for an Advanced Diploma in Marketing to become a Marketing Consultant in the Tax industry.

Finally, there is the Postgraduate Diploma that serves as a bridge between a bachelor’s and a higher qualification like a master’s degree.

In lieu of an Honours degree, a student who wants to get a master’s degree can go via the PGD route instead. It is intensive, broad in scope and will introduce the student to the research components that serious academics demand.

People who wish to learn more and grow in their career will find this degree useful since some organisations consider the qualification as one of the requirements for attaining junior managerial roles – if the employee is yet to get a master’s degree.


A degree is more intense, takes longer to complete, and packs a lot more content in the curriculum than a diploma or certificate programme.

One of the most crucial factors that distinguish a degree from other kinds of qualifications mentioned above is the research component.

Apart from the general bachelor’s degree which does not have that component, a Honours, Master’s, and Doctorate all require the submission of a mini (in the case of honours and some classes of master’s) or full dissertation (for research-based master’s and doctorate degrees).

A degree programme involves critical thinking, analyses of case studies, and a mastery of the theoretical aspects of the particular field of education.

Whether professionally-oriented or academically-inclined, a degree is meant to provide a broad education that is well-rounded and equips the student with the methodology, theory, and knowledge base of specific disciplines or fields of study.

Usually, a candidate progresses in the same line of study from bachelor’s though to master’s and then culminating in a doctorate.

With a minimum of three years for a bachelor’s, two years for a master’s and three years for a doctorate, a qualified degree holder is certified fit and knowledgeable enough to contribute to the body of knowledge having studied, passed many exams and submitted supervised research dissertations.


ConclusionWhile the above speaks true to the South African education system, specifically, the general procedure (concerning duration, credit load, etc.) in other countries are not too different when a certificate, diploma, or degree programme is considered.

In the end, it all boils down to:

  • why you want to study,
  • how long you have to commit to rigorous learning and research,
  • how much funds you have available to invest in studying for and acquiring the qualification, and
  • your end goal

Among other related considerations, these will be the factors that will determine which programme you eventually settle for.

The choice is yours!


Have you read: MBA elective courses in South Africa

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