NQF Research The Quick Insight to South Africa

Brilliant NQF Research for education and training folks. Professor Shirley Walters's paper "National Qualifications Frameworks: Insights from South Africa."

An amazing piece of NQF Research that’s easy to read! Professor Shirley Walters’s paper “National Qualifications Frameworks: Insights from South Africa.”

national qualifications framework nqf

NQF Research Insights from South Africa

NQF Research: National Qualifications Frameworks

I love sifting through research, do you? But I know many of my readers drive businesses that keep them too busy to filter through the massive load of available studies. That’s why I wrote this post! 😉

Shirley Walters NQF Research: Insights from South Africa

This paper is short and sweet so I highly recommend it to you as a fresh morning read! The Walters paper link also leads you to a superb collection of education studies.

The South African National Qualifications Framework (SANQF) Research

When it comes to education research about South Africa, we’ll make a point of sharing it here on 7Sundays. So connect with us and futureproof your business!

NQF Research: 30 Years of National Qualifications Frameworks

national qualifications framework nqf research

NQF Research: The Global Emergence of Frameworks

There are currently around 142 national and regional NQFs around the world
at different stages of development. In post-apartheid South Africa, the idea of the NQF was driven both by international processes and the need to address and redress wrongs and achieve equity for the Black majority.

Shirley Walters

Walters discusses the emergence and evolution of competency-based National Qualification Frameworks (NQFs) over the past thirty years. She points out that, specifically:

  • NQFs were introduced as a tool to bridge the gap between education, training, and work. They have also faced significant debates and criticisms.
  • Initially, the growth of NQFs was influenced by perceptions of global economic changes. This challenged the traditional division between education and training. It also emphasized the importance of recognizing workplace and life experience.
  • Business and government stakeholders saw NQFs as a way to make education more relevant to the workforce and achieve social objectives such as educational reform and equity.

Unlocking South Africa’s Educational Evolution: A Dynamic Look at NQF Research

South Africa demonstrates how global influences are adapted to meet national objectives. Although the idea of an NQF in South Africa was borrowed from international processes, these tend to have a focus on global knowledge governance. While South Africa developed its own unique NQF in response to complex local needs.

Crafted during the pivotal transition to a post-apartheid democracy, South Africa’s NQF was designed to revolutionize the education and training system. It tackled critical aspects such as access, redress, portability, and progression, all with the overarching objective of fostering lifelong learning.

In retrospect, the idealism of the time led to a recognition of the practical challenges and shortcomings of the NQF model as well as the qualifications and standard-setting processes that emerged during its implementation.

rpl and other policies for accreditation consultation

The SANQF: Insights from South Africa

When the South African National Qualifications Framework (SANQF) was established in October 1995, it marked the first education and training legislation passed by the democratically-elected government. Notably, it was enabling rather than prescriptive.

The legislation led to the creation of the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) as a statutory body under the SAQA Act of 1995. The SANQF was considered one of the initial qualification frameworks in the country.

NQF Research: Learning from International Bodies

During the development of the SANQF, South Africa drew insights from various international bodies. For example, the New Zealand Qualifications Authority and the Scottish Qualifications Authority. Additionally, valuable lessons were learned from systems in Canada, Germany, Ireland, and England. These external experiences played a crucial role in shaping the conceptual foundation of the NQF. They also guided policy and regulations.

Challenges and Conflicting Perspectives

Establishing the SANQF posed significant challenges due to the transformative nature of the South African context. Therefore the organizational and systemic infrastructure-build at SAQA became complicated. Historical factors that had pushed for transformation also created obstacles.

Then there was widespread skepticism and conflicting knowledge perspectives among stakeholders. Some argued from a globalized Western standpoint, while others advocated for indigenous knowledge systems or held anti-globalization viewpoints.

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Recognition of Prior Learning and Equity Goals

Given the racially segregated nature of apartheid education, trade unionists and social movement activists pushed for the massification of qualifications and the recognition of prior learning. Therefore an NQF goal was to address the inequalities perpetuated by the past system.

South Africa, as a peripheral economy and a country that had been isolated from the world, faced dual pressures. South Africa had to align with globalized practices and simultaneously build an equitable education and training system to tackle widespread poverty and inequality.

NQF Research: Development and Implementation of the SANQF

Walters describes the development and implementation of the South African National Qualifications Framework (SANQF), highlighting key aspects such as leadership, funding, and the necessary subsystems.

Leadership and Accountability

The first SAQA Board, appointed by the National Minister of Education in May 1996, played a crucial role in the development of the SANQF. Samuel Isaacs, appointed as the Chief Executive in March 1997, led SAQA for 15 years. Isaacs emphasized the need for accountability and bold leadership, “making the NQF Road by walking reflectively, accountably, and boldly.” This approach therefore recognized that NQFs are social constructions that require intellectual scrutiny, democratic participation, and funding.

Side note: Are all accredited training providers listed on SAQA qualifications yet? In 2016 I estimated that SAQA was +10 years behind. When engaging with them, they said they were “only” 2 years behind. But that wasn’t true as I had examples of accredited SDPs who were unlisted since 2011.

Necessary Conditions for Success

The first SAQA Board identified three necessary conditions for success:

  • democratic participation, intellectual scrutiny, and resourcing.

These conditions covered the following:

  • engaging stakeholders,
  • ensuring rigorous intellectual examination through academic scrutiny and international comparators, and
  • aligning financial, organizational, and extra-institutional resources.

The SANQF: Three Interrelated Subsystems

Three interrelated subsystems operationalize the SANQF:

  1. Standards Setting System
  2. Quality Assurance System
  3. Electronic Management Information System

Each subsystem was complex and therefore required contextually relevant policy choices. Examples of the various complex themes that emerged from these subsystems:

  • democratic participation of stakeholders
  • integration of education and training
  • separation of standards setting and quality assurance
  • exit level outcomes and assessment criteria
  • academic freedom and autonomy
  • power shifts and contestations among stakeholders
  • sustainable organizational capacity and resources.

NQF Research: Power Shifts, Contestations, and Review

Walters discusses the challenges faced by the South African National Qualifications Framework (SANQF) in terms of power shifts, contestations, and the subsequent review of the framework.

Contestations and Review

Power shifts and contestations emerged as significant challenges for the SANQF. But by the end of 1998, while being operational, there were many calls for its review. Funding and resourcing difficulties also severely constrained SAQA’s ability to lead and manage processes during this period. However finally, in 2001, a review did take place, resulting in new legislation—the NQF Act (2008).

Restructuring and New Opportunities

After the 2009 democratic elections, the Department of Education divided in two:

  1. The Department of Higher Education and Training and
  2. Department of Basic Education.

This restructuring presented significant opportunities to better manage and address tensions affecting the SANQF.

Under the new SANQF architecture and the NQF Act, SAQA became the oversight body.

The three Quality Councils followed:

  • Council for Higher Education (CHE)
  • Quality Council for Trades and Occupations (QCTO)
  • Council for General and Further Education and Training (Umalusi).

This structural change recognized the education and training system’s organisational and epistemological differences.

Development and Importance of SANQF Discourse: NQF Research

Walters highlights the establishment and development of a SANQF discourse in South Africa. For example, there’s the emergence of new terms such as “NQF levels,” “credits,” “notional learning hours,” “articulation,” and “equivalence.”

The SANQF: Actively debated, contested, and used

The NQF is increasingly understood as a framework for communication, coordination, and collaboration across education, training, development, and work. The SANQF is also viewed as a key strategy for advancing lifelong learning. SAQA therefore plays a key role in its further development and implementation.

Role in Advancing Lifelong Learning

SAQA’s role as the apex body for the NQF is crucial in enabling access to information about study and career opportunities for ordinary citizens. It also serves to uphold the aspirational goals of the NQF through advocacy, research, and development. SAQA has invested significant energy in the recognition of prior learning (RPL) as part of its efforts to promote lifelong learning.

It’s a Wrap: NQF Research from Walters

Walters provides a comprehensive overview of the global development of NQFs. She then follows with valuable insights from the South African context. Through this exploration, we uncover the dynamic nature of NQFs. They are pivotal tools in shaping the future of education. When identifying common ground across diverse forms of learning, they then contribute to the ongoing evolution of educational systems.

The NQF helps us design adaptable solutions to the multifaceted challenges of contemporary society.


Shirley Walters. (2015). “National Qualifications Frameworks: Insights from South Africa.” In Adult Education in an Interconnected World: Cooperation in Lifelong Learning for Sustainable Development Festschrift in Honour of Heribert Hinzen (pp. 147-154). DVV International – International Perspectives in Adult Education, No. 71.

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