What Is The Difference Between A Higher Certificate, A Diploma And A Degree Qualification? - SACAP
Applied Psychology

What is the Difference between a Higher Certificate, a Diploma and a Degree Qualification?

Jun 02, 2021 | By Saranne Durham
What is the Difference between a Higher Certificate, a Diploma and a Degree qualification?

Choosing the right type of qualification to matchup to your career ambitions, can be daunting. Especially when you not quite sure about the differences between a Higher Certificate, a Diploma and a Degree qualification. How do you figure out what you need to get in order to go where you want to be?

This article outlines the basics of the various qualifications. It then provides some practical tips on how to think through things, to help you arrive at options suited to you. It also uses some practical examples to assist your understanding of how to navigate through the different type of qualifications.

What are the Differences between the Types of Qualifications in South Africa?

Depending on what you need there are different avenues to pursue when it comes to furthering your education after school. Not all courses are full-time. Many qualifications can be completed on a part-time basis and some off-campus using, for example, online platforms. If you choose to study part-time, a course will take longer to complete, however you might also be able to work at the same time. This could enable you to gain valuable practical experience while studying or decrease the total of your study loans.

What is a Higher Certificate?

  • Focus: A Higher Certificate is a skills focused qualification. It aims to equip a student with specific skills that enable them to have a basic understanding of their field of study with some practical knowledge.
  • Timeframe: One year (full time)
  • Entry Requirements: Usually a Matric Pass or equivalent

What is a Diploma?

  • Focus: While similar to a degree, diplomas focus on practical work experience and internships rather than theoretical information.
  • Timeframe: Two to Three Years (full time).
  • Entry Requirements: Matric Exemption or equivalent.

What is a Degree?

Degrees are divided into three levels: Undergraduate, Post-Graduate and Doctorial. Each of which builds on the previous level. This means students are required to complete one level before they can apply to a higher level. Often there are additional requirements for entry to each level. Such as a minimal pass rate or completion of specific courses.

Degrees are usually internationally recognised. This enables successful students to practice their profession outside of their country of qualification. Or to apply to study further at an alternative (or international) institution.

Bachelor’s Degree (Undergraduate)

  • Focus: Usually more theoretical than practical.
  • Timeframe: 3 years (full time).
  • Entry Requirements: Matric Exemption with additional criteria, e.g.: Minimal mark requirements for specific subjects such as English.

Honours Degree (Postgraduate)

  • Focus: Skills and training required to work within a specific profession. Usually this is through a structured approach of combining coursework and a research project.
  • Timeframe: 1 – 2 years (full time).
  • Entry Requirements: A relevant bachelor’s degree / undergraduate qualification. Additional criteria may also be required, for example minimum final marks and primary focuses within an undergraduate course.

Professional Bachelor’s Degree (Undergraduate and Postgraduate Honours)

  • Focus: This degree is the equivalent of an undergraduate bachelor’s and postgraduate honours degree. Usually, they are for specific career specialities and combine theoretical and practical skills training over the duration of the qualification period. 
  • Timeframe: 4 years (full time).
  • Entry Requirements: Matric Exemption with additional criteria, e.g.: Minimal mark requirements for specific subjects, such as accounting.

Doctoral Degree

  • Focus: Original research which contributes to the body of knowledge within a specific field.
  • Timeframe: Minimum of 2 years (full time).
  • Entry Requirements: A relevant Master’s degree and attainment of specificized eligibility requirements for admission consideration.

How to Think Through a Proposed Study Pathway

The first thing to research is what the minimum qualification you need in order to work in your preferred career is. Then the question becomes how do you get it? Things to consider would be:

  • What study options do you have? (Part-time, full-time, campus attendance, online, correspondence…)
  • Is there a specific institution that you need and/or want to study at?
  • What is the cost of each possible option?
  • How are you going to pay for your studies?
  • How are you going to pay for you living expenses while you study?
  • Does your first step towards a qualification determine and/or limit what paths are open to you to specialise or upskill yourself later?
  • Ideally do you need to have your qualification to be from an accredited and internationally recognised institution?
  • Which suits you better – a practical or theoretical focused learning environment?
  • How quickly do you want to start working?

3 Step Practical Example on Selecting a Type of Qualification

Step 1: Contextualise what Your Career Goals are

I want to:

  • Work with people.
  • Help others maximise their potential.
  • Be recognised as an accredited professional by a professional oversight body and/or international organisations.
  • Potentially want to have my own business.

Step 2: Decide on the best Type of Qualification to Achieve Your Goals

I want to:

  • Start working quickly within my chosen career.
  • Do a shorter course with the option to follow up with specialisations that I need when I need them.
  • Have a more practical than theoretical focused learning environment.

SACAP offers a Diploma in Counselling and Communication Skills (2 years full-time or 3 years part-time). Once completed graduates can register as a Holistic Counsellors, with the SAQA recognised Association for Supportive Counsellors & Holistic Practitioners (ASCHP). Additionally, they are eligible for admission into a SACAP’s Bachelor of Applied Social Science Degrees, with credit transfer for any overlapping modules. Note that specificized eligibility requirements still need to be fulfilled.


I want to:

  • Spend more time studying so that I can get a higher qualification.
  • Have a good grounding in theoretical concepts through a comprehensive undergraduate degree.
  • Gain some practical experience through a work integrated learning approach.
  • Have a longer-term option to work within an academic environment, in a field such as research.
  • Have a degree from an accredited and internationally recognised institution.

SACAP offers A Bachelor of Applied Social Science majoring in Psychology and Counselling (3 years full-time or 5 years part-time). Upon completion, graduates are eligible to apply to study a Bachelor of Social Science Honours. This will prepare them for further specialisation, for example, a Masters in order to become a Psychologist.

Step 3: Where to Study

SACAP is here to help you explore your options. Contact us to set up an appointment to chat more about what types of qualifications is best for your career ambitions. SACAP is an internationally recognised and accredited organisation offering accredited Higher Certificate, Diploma, Undergraduate & Postgraduate Degrees.

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