Academic vs professional qualifications


By Gizelle McIntyre, director of The Institute of People Development

Whilst both academic qualifications and professional qualifications are recognised and controlled by the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) and both are indicative of a certain level of achievement, the levels of recognition of these forms of qualification are not always on par.

Although there are various differences between the two, is this distinction in recognition correct, or is too much impetus being placed on academics alone? Not all qualifications are equal, even though this is the primary vision and mission of the NQF.

A new approach to academic and professional qualifications

Perhaps a better approach would be for the two to work together to
produce a skilled workforce that has both an academic knowledge of the job at
hand and the real-world skills to perform the tasks required. Should the good of
the country not be the driving force behind education and training, rather than
the size of our egos?

There are various fundamental differences between these forms of
qualification. An academic qualification involves the study of a subject with an
academic discipline and (hopefully) research focus. The overriding purpose of this
qualification is a contribution to the learner?s specialised knowledge of a subject
and not necessarily the application thereof.

The purpose of a professional qualification is to impart knowledge,
understanding and practical experience to the learner to enable the learner to
apply the knowledge in a practical manner, in a professional practice. This
obviously leads to a completely different set of skills, each with different
purposes and contexts for the world of work.

A learner at The Institute of People Development (IPD) recently asked why
the NQF level 5 National Diploma in ETDP was taking her longer and was more
difficult than her NQF level 9 qualification from an academic institution. The
answer is quite simple; in order to prove competence in an occupationally
directed professional qualification it must be proven that the learner has
knowledge and understanding of the theory (foundational competence), that the
learner has the ability to apply that knowledge and understanding practically
(practical competence), and that the learner has the ability to apply that
knowledge, understanding and practical skill in an ever changing environment
(reflexive competence).

What makes these qualifications different?

On the one hand, a professional qualification is usually made up of on-the-
job training and various short courses, which when combined make up a
qualification. On the other hand, the academic route focuses on the theory
rather than practical application and leads to a qualification. With either
approach, this formal qualification comes with a title that can be utilised
infinitely, yet more often than not these titles are not treated as equal in the
recruitment space.

If regulated by a professional body in the form of a professional designation,
such titles must be renewed through annual reregistration with the regulatory
body and include continuous professional development (CPD) activities to prove
the currency of the skill/s.

The most striking difference between these forms of qualification is perhaps
that a professional qualification, due to the nature of the training and the fact
that it is built on practice analysis, offers a warrant of competence and
expertise. It therefore certifies that, having completed the course or training, the
graduate has the essential knowledge and skills to perform the duties required
of his/her profession.

In contrast, an academic qualification does not certify competence and is not
based on a systematic or formal practice analysis; all it certifies is that the
learner has successfully learnt the theory behind the practice. For this reason,
should human error lead to damages, no recourse will be permitted to an
academic institution, but in certain cases, recourse to a regulatory body may be

A collaborative approach will result in a combined effort in terms of professional
and academic qualifications, utilising skills analyses and gap training to expedite
the process. This will allow these qualifications to feed off of each other to
produce a skilled workforce with knowledge and experience; the perfect solution
to combating the current skills-short market.

Perhaps the employers should be asking themselves the question; "Who
should be employed in this particular job - someone who is a thought leader
and will ensure best practice via specialised knowledge and research (thus an
academic appointment), or a skilled professional who will provide best practice

Issued by Perfect Word Consulting (Pty) Ltd