Whether you’re 16 or 36, the world of training and learning can be confusing. With lots of terminology and a good degree of jargon to get your head around, you might feel like you’ve already earned a qualification simply by understanding what all the different terms mean.

In our experience, one of the biggest hurdles for learners (of any age) is knowing the difference between awards, certificates, and diplomas. They might sound similar, like they could be used interchangeably, but they represent a means of organising qualifications that you’ll need to know before opting for a certain course.

So, to help you learn the difference, we’ve put together a complete guide to awards, certificates, and diplomas, including what they mean and how they could affect your distance learning journey.

Organising Qualifications by Difficulty and Size

Qualifications are organised by difficulty and size as a means of showing their standard. In other words, how hard they are and how long they take to complete.

The harder the qualification, the more value it has and the more clout it can bring to your CV and job prospects. The same is true of course length, with longer courses helping to raise the bar of a particular qualification.

a young man stares thoughtfully at his computer

When it comes to organising qualifications by difficulty, we use the ‘Level’ system. This is a simple way of classifying qualifications by how challenging they are, with Entry Level representing the lowest difficulty and Level 8 the highest.

Here’s a quick breakdown to help you understand what different Levels represent:

LevelExample Qualification
Entry LevelSkills for Life, English for Foreign Language Speakers (ESOL)
Level 1GCSE (grades 3-1), Level 1 NVQ
Level 2GCSE (grades 9-4), Intermediate Apprenticeship
Level 3A-Level, Level 3 National Diploma
Level 4Certificate of Higher Education (CertHE), Higher Apprenticeship
Level 5Foundation Degree, Level 5 Award
Level 6Degree with Honours (BA or BSc), Graduate Diploma
Level 7Integrated Master’s Degree, Level 7 NVQ
Level 8Doctorate (PhD), Level 8 Award

So, while the Level system represents difficulty, we use Awards, Certificates, and Diplomas to classify qualifications by size. Each term represents how many hours a specific qualification takes to earn, with an Award being the shortest and Diploma the longest.

We’ll take a closer look at these three types of qualifications below.

What is an Award Qualification?

In terms of the number of training hours required, Awards are the ‘shortest’ or ‘smallest’ qualifications offered. An Award is any qualification that requires up to 130 hours to complete and is equal to up to 13 credits. So, if you haven’t figured it out, one credit roughly equals around 10 learning hours.

What is an award

“What are credits?” we hear you ask. Credits refer to the Regulated Qualification Framework (RQF), a system designed to index qualifications by their size and level. Think of the RQF as a library, with its associated qualifications carefully catalogued to reflect their value, content, and purpose. You can learn more about the RQF here.

Because Awards represent the shortest version of a course, they have the fewest number of modules. Modules are used to calculate the Total Qualification Time (TQT) as well as Guided Learning Hours (GLH) – the number of hours spent being taught or supervised as part of a learning course.

What is a Certificate Qualification?

Certificate qualifications are the next step up from Awards. They vary broadly in terms of TQT and GLH, with some Certificates requiring just 130 hours to complete (13 credits) and others up to 370 hours (37 credits).

In the training world, Certificates are often considered a happy middle ground. They offer comprehensive course content to help you master a particular area of study, generally providing all the knowledge you need to take your career to the next level or pursue further education.

What is a Diploma Qualification?

Within the parameters of the RQF, Diplomas are considered the longest and most comprehensive qualifications available. They generally require over 370 hours of training to complete, equating to 37 credits within the RQF system.

Diplomas offer wide-ranging coverage of the chosen subject matter, providing detailed training designed to develop your skills to the optimal level. In-depth and challenging, Diplomas present a significant milestone for learners of all ages but do provide advanced skills and knowledge to help accelerate and drive your career forward.

What is a certificate

Things to Consider When Choosing the Right Learning Course

Now that you understand how qualifications are categorised and ranked, this may raise questions about the type of courses that are right for you. With so many options and such varying demands, choosing a programme that meets your learning needs can be tricky.

Generally speaking, we always recommend that learners opt for the largest version of a particular course - the one with the most modules and longest TQT. This will provide a comprehensive and thorough learning experience, equipping you with the knowledge and skills you need for the future.


That said, there are no rules on the type of course you choose, and it really depends on the course in question and your aspirations for the future. Do your research and pay attention to entry requirements for a particular industry or field of study; it may be that an Award qualification is sufficient for some jobs or further study programmes, while others may require a Certificate or higher.

We hope this guide clears up any confusion you may have had about Awards, Certificates and Diplomas, and how they fit into the RQF system. Should you need any help choosing the right course for your learning needs, the Oxbridge team are happy to help. For more information or to speak to one of our expert learning advisers, visit the homepage or call us today on 0121 630 3000.