An alternative to matric and varsity: your study options in SA explained


It’s generally accepted that a child must begin their schooling journey at primary school, then it’s off to high school where they will choose the subjects that will be in line with their future career prospects. Once matric is in the bag, the next step is moving on to a tertiary institution that offers the diploma, degree or other qualification that applies to their career choice.

Yet there are so many other options, and understanding exactly how our education system works is not exactly part of the usual schooling conversation. It's this understanding that can really make a difference in determining what path to a career is right for your child – what alternative options exist for learners who are more practically inclined, and how to avoid unaccredited education providers.

The National Qualifications Framework levels

Essential to this understanding is the National Qualifications Framework (NQF). Regardless of the education provider, all qualifications (diplomas, degrees and certificates) are validated by the NQF and assigned specific levels.

The NQF is regulated by the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) who define the framework as “… principles and guidelines by which records of learner achievement are registered to enable national recognition of acquired skills and knowledge.” 

The NQF system is also meant to safe-guard against invalid institutes since all qualifications must be accredited by and registered with SAQA. 

Take a look at the table below to get a visual breakdown of the NQF levels and their corresponding qualification type.

  • A vocational pathway includes a wide variety of skills and careers, from art, education, finance, hospitality and marketing to engineering, public health and management. Qualifications can be obtained from TVET colleges.
  • A general/academic pathway includes studies in humanities, commerce, engineering and science and education at public or private universities.  
  • A professional pathway would be where the student prepares for accreditation, such as in the medical field, law and chartered accountancy at public or private universities.

If your child can't or won't complete their high school career and get a National Senior Certificate (NSC), it's not the end of the road for them. Leaving school after Grade 9 to further studies at a TVET college is a viable option if your child’s learning style is more practical than theoretical.

And it would still be possible for your teen to eventually achieve a higher education, the only difference is the steps taken to get there. 


    Each NQF level (even Grade 9) carries a certain amount of credits, which are recognised under the National Qualifications Framework. To apply at tertiary institutions, you'll need a specific amount of credits, depending on the course your child wants to enrol in. 

    SAQA stipulates that 10 notional hours (average learning time) is equal to 1 credit. 

    According to their website: 

    “The minimum credits for a full qualification is 120 credits, which translates to 1200 notional hours of instruction and study. It is generally completed over 1 year of full-time study at a registered and accredited institution.” 

    Studies can also be undertaken part-time, for instance you can do a one-year diploma over two years.

    Take special care to ensure that a qualification and its credit value has been verified. To do this you can search through SAQA's list of Qualifications and Unit Standards

    Also ensure you know the entry requirements for the tertiary course your child is interested in, so he or she doesn't come up short after taking a one-year diploma when they in fact needed the credits of a two-year diploma.  

    Bridging the gaps

    TVET colleges offer multiple options for a wide group of people seeking education or further training, these include: 

    • Teens who leave school after grade 9 who want to complete grades 10, 11 and 12;
    • Students who have passed matric and now want to learn a trade; 
    • University post-graduate students who want to obtain practical experience;
    • Adults who, for whatever reason, were not able to complete their schooling, or who want to further their education and skills set.

    If the goal is to accumulate enough credits to go on to apply to a university to pursue a Bachelor's degree, honours, master's or doctorate, thorough research must be done as it might not be possible to take this route for every single occupation. 

    Vocational course types

    College courses vary greatly from duration to cost and purpose. These are the popular course types offered at TVET colleges: 

    National Certificate (Vocational) aka NCV

    This three-year programme is offered at NQF levels 2, 3 and 4, and is the equivalent of completing grades 10, 11 and 12. To take this course a student must have passed grade 9 (or NQF level 1) and will complete 7 subjects per level, per year. Similar to the secondary school requirements, Language, Life Orientation and Mathematics or Mathematical Literacy are compulsory subjects.

    Along with theory, learning is intermingled with practical industry-focused training and placement in work environment settings (real or simulated). This path essentially allows your child to begin working towards their chosen career when they start grade 10.

    Obtaining a National Certificate (Vocational) with achieving specific marks can make a learner eligible to enrol for further studies at a TVET or private college.

    Higher Education programmes

    These programmes are ideal for students looking to obtain foundational skills, practical techniques and knowledge in a specific field and is offered at NQF level 5. Higher Education programmes earn students a Higher Certificate and upskills a learner to be suitable for an entry-level position. Duration varies from programme to programme but lasts a minimum of 1 year.

    Students who graduate will have the option of registering for an Advanced Certificate or Diploma in the same industry or a related one. 

    The NATED or Report 191 programme: N6 Diploma

    Offered at NQF level 6, NATED or Report 191 programmes also run for a duration of 3 years, and the programme splits into two phases. The first 18 months will be spent on theoretical studies at the college of your choice and the other 18 months within a relevant workplace, putting into practice what was learned during the theoretical phase. The qualification earned after completing a NATED or Report 191 programme is an N6 Diploma. 

    Depending on the university, credits earned from either a Higher Certificate or N6 Diploma can technically be transferred and used to apply for a Bachelor's degree. While students with enough credits and/or diplomas can apply at a university, in practice the competition to get into universities can be fierce and it's not a given your child will be accepted. But TVET and private technical colleges remain excellent options for further studies and furthering your child's career prospects.

    TVET Colleges SA outlines many more occupational/vocational courses and training options here.

    Finding a suitable institution

    A firm awareness of what makes our education system tick will mean that learners and parents will be better equipped when researching through tricky brochures or websites typically riddled with complicated terminology to find a suitable tertiary level option.

    Becoming familiar with these quality councils is a good way parents can ensure they don't fall prey to fraudulent institutions. We recommend checking with the appropriate quality council on whether a private institution they're considering is in fact certified to teach a qualification advertised on their website or brochure. 

    The quality councils are: 

    1. Umalusi: 

    Umalusi is responsible for school-level qualifications that are on the first four levels of the NQF – levels 1 to 4.

    Search here to see if a private institution is accredited

    2. The Quality Council for Trades and Occupations (QCTO): 

    QCTO manages vocational training and education from level 1 through to level 6, focusing on the trades and occupations, from plumbing through to being a chef or some areas of accounting. These colleges are called Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) Colleges, which in the past were called Further Education and Training (FET) colleges. 

    Here you'll find a comprehensive list of occupational qualifications, each with their NQF level, credits needed and the SAQA ID number.

    Click here to access the PDFs with lists of accredited skills development providers.

    Click here for a list of public TVET Colleges, and here are the accredited private colleges.

    3. The Council on Higher Education (CHE): 

    CHE is responsible for higher education qualifications on levels 5 to 10, offered by registered private higher education institutions and public universities.  

    Here's a list of accredited tertiary institutions in South Africa. Also see this list:

    Is your child struggling to decide whether to attend a college or university? Tell us by emailing to and we could publish your letter. Do let us know if you'd like to stay anonymous.  

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