What is a diploma equivalent to?

a group of graduates holding their diploma certificates

Traditionally, to start a professional career in the UK you had two options. If you were looking for a job in a vocational field, gaining practical experience through an apprenticeship was your way to get your foot in the door. On the other hand, going to university and obtaining a three or four year bachelor’s degree was typically required for more academic careers.

However, thanks to new teaching techniques, more of a focus on skill-oriented learning, and a range of technological advances, there are now many ways to gain the qualifications you need to start your career. One of these new pathways involves completing distance learning diplomas in your chosen field.

Here at ICI, for example, we offer over 50 distance learning courses. These courses range from real estate, law and finance qualifications to vocational courses in design, beauty, and health and fitness. These tiered diplomas provide a flexible and cheaper alternative to traditional higher education. They also range from entry level courses to undergraduate-equivalent qualifications. However, understanding what each level roughly equates to is not always easy.

In this guide, we explain exactly what diplomas are. We also look at what level of qualification they represent, and what they are equivalent to.

What is a diploma?

A diploma is a certificate that confirms an individual has reached a certain level of education or skill. Unlike a degree, diplomas usually align themselves with careers rather than academic fields. For this reason, before enrolling on a university course, it’s worth researching diploma courses. Depending on the career move you want to make, as well as your own personal circumstances, a distance diploma course might be the best option for you.

The right diploma will help you learn new skills and strengthen your CV. Naturally, this can open doors to new career opportunities. Structured in a tiered hierarchy – starting with entry-level foundation courses and ending with advanced courses – there are different types of diplomas that each relate to different levels of educational qualification. Below we explain what a number of the most common types of diploma are equivalent to in the UK.

What level is a diploma?

Different levels of diploma are awarded based on the standards of knowledge, skill and competence in a chosen subject area. In the UK, the best way to think about this is to compare diplomas with the widely recognised National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs). Used across the UK, NVQs are work-based qualifications that recognise the skills an individual needs to do a job. Used almost exclusively for vocational subjects, they are set at different levels. For example, levels 2 and 3 correspond to standard GCSE and A levels, while levels 4 and 5 are akin to higher education qualifications.

Although it’s important to note that ICI diplomas are not NVQ courses, they can be seen to work in a similar way. ICI courses follow a curriculum developed in line with feedback from employer consultations. Each course is accredited by the International Approval and Registration Council (IARC) and the International Association of Private Career Colleges (IAPCC). While ICI diplomas have not been designed to have equivalent NVQ qualifications, below we provide you with approximate comparisons:

  • ICI Foundation Certificates are comparable to Level 1 and 2 NVQs
  • ICI Standard Diplomas are comparable to a Level 3 NVQ.

What level is an advanced diploma?

As touched upon above, ICI Advanced Diplomas are independent. This means they are not designed in line with other qualifications. However, to give you an idea of the depth and standard of these qualifications, they can be approximately compared with the following qualifications:

  • Level 4 and 5 NVQs
  • Higher Education Certificate/BTECs
  • Higher Education Foundation Degrees

Is a diploma a good option?

To put it simply, yes! For many career paths, diplomas are a great option. Thanks to shifting attitudes and technological advances, the job market is changing – as are the specific qualifications and skills employers are looking for when hiring. Many employers – particularly those in vocational trades – now value practical skills obtained through a diploma on the same level (or even more highly) as theoretical knowledge learned through university degrees.

Aside from offering more career-based qualifications, diplomas often take less time to complete. They are also usually much cheaper than university degree programmes. With flexible payment plans, such as those offered at ICI, you can spread out the cost of your course in a way that suits you. Unlike rigidly-structured university degrees, distance diploma courses can be undertaken online too. This means they can be completed at a time and place that best suits your own lifestyle. In a time when lives are becoming ever-busier, this makes them a great option for many students.

Online, career focused education that suits your lifestyle.

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Gladys Mae


Gladys Mae serves as the General Manager and Head of Student Services at the International Career Institute. Gladys holds a degree in Mass Communication - Broadcast Media from the University of San Jose-Recoletos. She joined ICI in 2010 and has over the past 12 years been instrumental in providing leadership and guidance to staff and students alike. Prior to joining ICI Gladys led a multifaceted career with key roles in the banking and business process outsourcing industries.