Section A: NFQ Architecture and the Characteristics of Higher Education Programmes that it Recognises


The Qualifications (Education and Training) Act 1999 first articulated, in a national context, the requirement to develop a qualifications framework based on outcomes of knowledge, skill and competence. The Framework was primarily established to provide a reference point to compare and contrast qualifications for the purposes of easing access and progression arrangements for the learner and increasing the recognition of awards; providing a means of recognising varying sizes of learning; and, reinforcing and supporting the national policy approach towards the creation of a lifelong learning society. The concept of lifelong learning recognises that learning takes place in formal, non-formal and informal settings that include the workplace, involvement in social and community activities, and learning through life experience generally. A major objective of the Framework is to enable the recognition of these learning achievements, to support the development of alternative pathways to qualifications (or awards), and to promote the recognition of prior learning.

Following widespread consultation the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland (NQAI) set out the architecture of the Framework in 2003 in its documents Policies and Criteria for the Establishment of the National Framework of Qualifications and Determinations for a National Framework of Qualifications. The essential elements are set out below:

  • The Framework has ten levels, which incorporate schools, further and higher education and training qualifications. A representation of these levels through a ‘fan diagram’ is available in appendix A1;
  • There are overarching level indicators at each level of the Framework with associated sub-strands of knowledge, skill and competence appropriate to the achievement of an award at each of these levels. These indicators are expressed in terms of learning outcomes and are included in appendix A2; Major awards at each level are further defined through major award-type descriptors; those relating to higher education are included in appendix A3; In the universities, major award-type descriptors are the reference point for developing learning outcomes at the programme and module level of major awards. Level indicators are the reference level for developing programme and module learning outcomes for non-major awards [1];
  • There are two overall types of award in the Framework: Major awards and Non-Major awards;
  • Major awards have a larger volume and breadth associated with them than non-major awards. There are currently 16 major award-types included across the ten levels of the Framework;
  • There are three classes of non-major award: minor, special purpose and supplemental. The award-type descriptors for these classes of award are included in appendix A4 ; the descriptors are broad in nature in order to be able to incorporate a wide range and variation of programme provision. These awards capture smaller or more narrow pieces of learning and are described by the NQAI as follows:
    • Minor awards recognise partial completion of the outcomes of a major ward
    • Supplemental awards recognise learning that is additional to a Major Award
    • Special purpose awards recognise relatively narrow or purpose-specific achievement.

Therefore, minor awards and supplemental awards always have a relationship with at least one major award, whilst a special-purpose award may share some outcomes with a major award, but can also be a stand-alone award;

  • Further education and training awards are made at levels 1-6 of the Framework, higher education and training awards are made from levels 6-10;
  • Awards included in the Framework are expected to indicate the access, transfer and progression arrangements (ATP) associated with them;
  • Awards recognised through the Framework are subject to quality assurance processes (see Quality Assurance), and;
  • At levels 6-10 of the NFQ there are 7 major award-types that apply to the design of higher education and training awards:
    • Level 6 - Higher Certificate
    • Level 7 - Ordinary Bachelor Degree
    • Level 8 - Honours Bachelor Degree
    • Level 9 - Masters Degree / Postgraduate Diploma
    • Level 10 - Doctorate


The 2003 NQAI document Policies and Criteria for the Establishment of the National Framework of Qualifications sets out further information on the nature of the knowledge, skill and competence outcomes, and the associated sub-stands thereof, upon which the Framework is constructed. The relevant section has been reproduced in italics below and provides useful guidance on the application of these concepts to the design of programme and module learning outcomes, a topic that is further elaborated upon in Part 2 of this report:

Division of knowledge, skill and competence into sub-strands

The Authority has determined that there are three general strands of learning outcome that will be used in setting standards. These strands are knowledge, know-how and skill, and competence. It is necessary to analyse the learning outcomes within these strands more fully. A number of substrands have been identified within these main strands that can be considered as the component structures of the three kinds of learning outcome. They identify the sources of order within the kinds of learning outcomes associated with awards at the various levels of the Framework. The substrands are based on the concepts introduced in the understandings of knowledge, skill and competence.

The main strands of learning outcome are divided into sub-strands as follows:

  • knowledge
  • breadth
  • kind
  • know-how and skill
  • range
  • selectivity
  • competence
  • context
  • role
  • learning to learn
  • insight

The sub-strands can be summarised as aiming to answer the following questions:

  • How extensive is the learner’s knowledge?
  • What nature or quality of knowing has the learner engaged in?
  • How extensive are the physical, intellectual, social and other skills demonstrated by the learner?
  • How complicated are the problems that a learner can tackle using the skills acquired and how does a learner tackle them?
  • In what contexts is a learner able to apply his/her knowledge and skills?
  • How much responsibility can the learner take, personally and in groups, for the application of his/her knowledge and skills?
  • To what extent can the learner identify the gaps in his/her learning and take steps to fill those gaps?
  • How far has the learner integrated the intellectual, emotional, physical and moral aspects of his/her learning into his/her self-identity and interaction with others?

Knowledge – breadth

Knowledge outcomes are associated with facts and concepts; that is, they refer to knowledge of, or about, something. The more diverse, complex and varied the facts and concepts, the greater the breadth of knowledge and this is a matter of level. Breadth is be distinguished from the number of different facts and concepts learned, which relates to volume.

Knowledge – kind

The representation of facts and concepts, including ideas, events or happenings, is cumulative. The more facts and concepts are layered on top of each other, and draw successively upon each other to construct meaning, the higher the level of learning. This process is typically associated with progressively greater abstraction from concrete phenomena into theory.

Know-how and skill – range

Skills, in both their execution and the demonstration of underpinning procedural knowledge, encompass the use of many different kinds of tool. ‘Tool’ refers to any device or process that facilitates individuals having some effect on their physical, informational or social environment. Tools include cognitive and social processes as well as physical implements. Tools, and the skills to use them, range from commonplace or familiar to novel or newly-invented. The sheer number of skills acquired is a matter of volume, rather than of level. The diversity of skills is a feature of this strand that contributes to differentiation in level. The completeness of the set of skills (and associated know how) in respect of an area of activity is another feature that helps indicate the level.

Know-how and skill – selectivity

The performance of tasks depends on the learner having an appropriate understanding of the environment in which the tasks are performed and being aware of his/her own ability and limitations, while at the same time being able to correctly judge the fit between the demands and ability. Whereas the range of know-how and skill refers to what a learner can do, selectivity (which might also be called procedural responsiveness) refers to the judgement that the learner exercises in carrying out procedures, through selecting from the range of know-how and skills available to him/her, in accordance with his/her appraisal of the demands of the task.

Competence – context

Human situations, whether occupational or general social and civic ones, supply the context within which knowledge and skill are deployed for practical purposes. Such situations range in complexity and hence in the demands they place upon the person acting in them. Highly defined and structured situations or contexts constrain the behaviour of the individual and require lower levels of learning. The range of responses required, and hence the extent to which a broader range or higher level of knowledge and skill have to be drawn upon also depends on how predictable the context is. Acting effectively and autonomously in complex, ill-defined and unpredictable situations or contexts requires higher levels of learning.

Competence – role

For many purposes, joining and functioning in various kinds of group is a key component in putting knowledge and skill to effective use. Joining a group successfully requires individuals to adopt appropriate roles within the group. This requires the application of social skills and an understanding of the tasks of the group. Higher levels of competence are associated with playing multiple roles as well as with roles requiring leadership, initiative and autonomy. Higher competence is also associated with participation in more complex and internally diverse groups.

Competence – learning to learn

This strand encompasses the extent to which an individual can recognise and acknowledge the limitations of his/her current knowledge, skill and competence and plan to transcend these limitations through further learning. Learning to learn is the ability to observe and participate in new experiences and to extract and retain meaning from these experiences. While drawing on other aspects of knowledge, skill and competence, this substrand places an emphasis on the relationship of the learner to his/her own learning processes. This provides a basis for abstraction and generalisation that, in principle, facilitates regarding this as a separate sub-strand of competence.

Competence – insight

Insight refers to ability to engage in increasingly complex understanding and consciousness, both internally and externally, through the process of reflection on experience. Insight involves the integration of the other strands of knowledge, skill and competence with the learner’s attitudes, motivation, values, beliefs, cognitive style and personality. This integration is made clear in the learners’ mode of interaction with social and cultural structures of his/her community and society, while also being an individual cognitive phenomenon. A learner’s self understanding develops through evaluating the feedback received from the general environment, particularly other people, and is essential to acting in the world in a manner that is increasingly autonomous.

Status of the sub-strands

Not all the sub-strands are equally familiar to current users of awards. The sub-strands within knowledge and know-how and skill have long formed the basis for awards. Context and role competence are familiar for users of some types of award. The competence of learning to learn makes explicit, as outcomes, certain kinds of learning that would previously have been considered as properties of programmes and, as such, are bound up in the learning process, rather than elements to be explicitly certified in awards. Insight is perhaps the most innovative sub-strand. It is not clear to what extent this sub-strand has been taken up as an explicit objective of education and training programmes or incorporated in the design of awards. There are considerable difficulties in devising appropriate methods for assessing the attainment of such outcomes. Nevertheless, it seems desirable to make provision for such outcomes within the Framework. It is likely that this substrand will need further refinement as education and training practice and associated awarding practice develops. This sub-strand will need to be developed iteratively in association with practitioners.


One of the main aims of the Framework, and a statutory function of the NQAI, is to improve access, transfer and progression arrangements for the learner across education and training. The allocation of credit to individual modules and programmes as a whole is one means of supporting this objective.

The volume associated with higher education and training awards is expressed in terms of the allocation of European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) compatible credit. In 2004, the NQAI published the document Principles and Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of a National Approach to Credit in Irish Higher Education and Training. Developed in conjunction with representatives from higher education and training, these principles and guidelines set out the range of credits associated with the higher education and training major award-types in the Framework apart from the research Master’s Degree and the taught or research Doctoral Degree [2] (these are similarly not associated with credit in the Bologna Framework). The document also indicates the national agreement that one credit notionally equates to 20-30 hours of student effort.

Credit and Major Award-Types:

Level 6Higher Certificate120 credits
Level 7Ordinary Bachelor Degree180 credits
Level 8Honours Bachelor Degree180 - 240 credits
Level 8Higher Diploma60 credits
Level 9Postgraduate Diploma60 credits
Level 9Masters Degree (Taught)60 - 120 credits

In January 2006, the universities and the NQAI also agreed the credit ranges and associated qualification titles for non-major awards in the university sector. It was decided that the title Certificate would be used for non-major awards up to but not including 60 credits, and that the title Diploma would be used for non-major awards of 60 credits or more.

Recognition of prior learning (RPL) is becoming an increasingly important aspect of access, transfer and progression arrangements and of the drive towards establishing a lifelong learning society. The NQAI has published Principles and Operational Guidelines for the Recognition of Prior Learning in Further and Higher Education and Training. These principles and guidelines include the recognition of prior experiential and/or accredited learning for access to a programme, advanced access to a programme and for a full award. The role that RPL might play in admission arrangements should be considered and documented at the programme design stage. If redesigning a programme, it is an equally suitable time to review the programme entry, exit and progression arrangements.

Increasing use of the Diploma Supplement has also aided recognition and progression internationally. A Europass Diploma Supplement is issued to graduates of higher education institutions. It provides additional information on a graduate's award, including the level of the award on the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ). The Diploma Supplement also contains information on the referencing of the Irish NFQ to the Bologna and EQF Frameworks (see p. 40). 


The universities have primary responsibility for their own quality assurance systems. They established the Irish Universities Quality Board (IUQB, in 2002 to organise the periodic review of the effectiveness of the quality assurance procedures in place in the universities as required by Section 35(4) of the Universities Act, 1997. The Higher Education Authority (HEA) has a statutory function to review and report on the quality assurance procedures developed by the universities and to be consulted by the universities in their review of the effectiveness of quality assurance procedures.

Increasingly, the quality assurance processes in place in the universities refer to the appropriate design and positioning of awards within the Framework. The joint Irish Universities Association (IUA) and IUQB document A Framework for Quality in Irish Universities which was updated in 2007, put the placement of programmes in the Framework as a key element of the quality assurance self-assessment process. As part of the Self-Assessment Report for an Academic Unit, the following is set out for the Curriculum Development Review aspect:

Details of programmes and modules are provided, including specific reference to the positioning of each associated qualification in the National Framework of Qualifications, with sufficient information provided to allow the reviewers to understand the appropriateness of the level and type of the award …The Unit also describes the processes by which the curricula of its programmes are developed and reviewed on a periodic basis. The benchmarking of the programmes against similar programmes elsewhere in Ireland and internationally is an important option. [Section 6.6, pg. 55]

The IUQB’s 2009 document Institutional Review of Irish Universities incorporates the Framework for Quality in Irish Universities and thus links quality assurance practices to the implementation of the Framework:

The Main Review Visit will be used by the team to confirm the processes employed by the university for assuring the effectiveness of its quality management process in accordance with national and European requirements. The team will receive and consider evidence on the …ways the university has been working to ensure that it has in place procedures (including, for example, internal reviews and its external examiner processes) designed to evaluate how the learning outcomes are achieved for programmes that have been placed in the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ) [Section 35, pg. 12]

The documents A Framework for Quality in Irish Universities and Institutional Review of Irish Universities are both written in a manner that is consistent with the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG) which were adopted by European Ministers for Education at their 2005 Ministerial meeting in Bergen. They include standards and related guidelines for internal institutional approval, monitoring and periodic review of programmes and the external review of same.


There are several actors involved in carrying out quality assurance activities across the higher education sector; each acting in accordance with their respective legislative provisions. The Irish Higher Education Quality Network (IHEQN) was established in 2003 to provide a forum for the principal national stakeholders involved in the quality assurance of higher education and training to discuss quality in a national and international context, to work towards the development of a common national position on key quality assurance issues and to inform the debate on those same issues at a European level. It includes representation from all of the awarding bodies and agencies involved in quality assurance and the Department of Education and Science (DES), the Irish Universities Association (IUA), Institutes of Technology Ireland (IOTI) and higher education and training providers. The Network also provides the opportunity to work with the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) to develop the input of students into quality assurance processes. As a result of this collaboration, the IHEQN has published Principles of Good Practice in Quality Assurance / Quality Improvement for Irish Higher Education and Training; Principles for Reviewing the Effectiveness of Quality Assurance Procedures in Irish Higher Education and Training; Principles for Student Involvement in Quality Assurance; and Provision of Education to International Students: Code of Practice and Guidelines for Irish Higher Education Institutions. These documents are available on the IHEQN website

The university sector Framework Implementation Network and the IHEQN have collaborated in the last academic year through Bologna Expert seminars on the design and quality assurance of discipline specific learning outcomes. These were organised in conjunction with the HEA and supported by the European Commission.


NFQ architecture:

Access, Transfer and Progression (ATP)

Quality Assurance


[1] The Higher Education and Training Awards Council (HETAC) has developed standards in a number of fields of learning which have evolved from the Framework's generic major award-type descriptors and are referred to by its providers and by the Institutes of Technology.

[2] It should be noted that while nationally no credit has been assigned to the researcvh Master's Degree or the research Doctoral Degree awards, a number of universities have allocated credit within their institutions to components leading to these awards.

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