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The difference between certificates, diplomas and degrees

Diploma or degree

(and which level of qualification might be right for you)

Which type of course is best for you

Thinking of going for a new qualification to further your career, or start a new one? There are tons of different options available in Australia. When it comes to formal qualifications (not just short courses or classes), you can do anything from a Certificate I to a PhD in literally thousands of different disciplines.

Even if you’ve zeroed in on a particular area of study, you might have a hard time choosing between the different levels of qualifications. Many have got the same word in the title, so searching for a key word might not help much. Say you were thinking of becoming an entrepreneur, or wanted to take your career to the next level in the business world. You might start researching ‘business courses’ or ‘business qualifications’ and end up with a dozen different accredited course options (never mind the choice of unis and RTOs!). So what’s the difference between a Certificate IV in Business, a Bachelor of Business and a Graduate Diploma in Business?

In this article we’ll discuss the different levels of qualifications, their purposes, and which one might be right for you.

Different levels of qualifications

Different countries regulate their qualifications differently. Most countries have at least some laws and rules around what counts as a qualification, such as what you have to put in to a diploma course, or which institutions are allowed to give out degrees. This is to help protect students who want a worthwhile education, potential employers who want to know that qualifications are meaningful, and the general public who want to be able to trust qualified professionals.

In Australia, the different levels of qualifications are set out in the Australian Qualifications Framework.

The Australian Qualifications Framework

The Australian Qualifications Framework is a system that divides qualifications up in to ten different levels. The levels indicate:

  • How complex the qualification is
  • How challenging it is to get
  • How independently you have to work to get it

Each AQF level has four important criteria to it. The criteria describe graduates in terms of:

  • what the qualification lets them do (in terms of level of work, life skills, and further study)
  • the depth of knowledge they have
  • the skill level it gives them
  • how they use the knowledge and skill in the real world

You can check out the criteria on the AQF website; we don’t need to go over them all here. Basically, it goes from Level 1 (a Certificate 1: basic life and work skills, like reading, writing, following instructions) to level 10 (a doctoral degree: literally discovering new things, pushing the boundaries of human knowledge, and being the number 1 expert in your very specific thing).

AQF levels

Where certificates, diplomas and degrees sit in the framework


Most certificates for professional or semi-professional jobs (management and office jobs) are at a Certificate III or IV level. This is levels 3 and 4 of the AQF.

At these levels, it’s mostly about technical knowledge and ability. In other words, practical skills you can apply in a job right away. However, it’s more advanced than the first few levels in that graduates are also expected to be able to understand how and why something works, so they can start to come up with their own creative solutions and do things that don’t fit an exact routine or procedure.


Diplomas are at level 5 of the AQF. This means they’re a step above certificates. The main differences are that diplomas:

  • can lead to more complex, skilled work, rather than more routine work
  • can include a broader range of background knowledge that helps the graduate make trickier decisions
  • include more advanced thinking, like formally analysing things
  • cover more complex problems and workplace challenges
  • include more about communicating and working with others
  • be more about independent work, or even work where you’re responsible for others (like management roles)

At this level, there’s still a lot of technical stuff, but there’s also more theory stuff. This is necessary for graduates to be able to develop critical thinking, make their own decisions and come up with ideas that are grounded in real facts. For example, a diploma student studying management might learn technical skills like how to balance a roster. They might also learn theories around psychology and people skills, which they can apply when they have to manage unique interpersonal situations at work.

Graduate certificates and diplomas

Graduate certificates and diplomas also have a lot of stuff on technical skills. But they’re way up at level 8 of the AQF. As the name suggests, these qualifications are for people who either have degrees, or the equivalent work and life experience of a degree.

These qualifications are for people who already have a lot of knowledge and practical skill in a particular area, either through work, study or both, but need to push themselves even further. Some graduate certificates and diplomas focus on particular skill sets or aspects of the profession. For example, a social worker might do a graduate certificate specifically on ways to help clients with their careers. An experienced law enforcement officer might do a graduate diploma in financial crimes, to sharpen their skills for that kind of work. A manager or executive might do a graduate certificate to help them understand cultural diversity in their business.

Different purpose

Knowing that qualifications are arranged on a scale helps narrow down your decision. But what do the different levels really mean for you as someone who’s trying to further your career or get into a whole new area? Here’s a rundown of the different purposes.

Certificates: essential practical skills and knowledge

Do this if: you want to start working in your chosen field ASAP, even if it’s an entry-level job, and work your way up

Certificate qualifications cover the basics you need to do a job competently. They’re generally the fastest pathway to an entry-level job in a particular field. In fact, for some jobs, the minimum qualification is a certificate.
Some people do a certificate and then do their ongoing learning on the job, while others go on to further study. In short, a certificate might be right for you if you have no experience or knowledge in a particular area, and want to get started as quickly as possible.

Diplomas: more advanced skills, deeper understanding

Do this if: You want to move up in your career, get a pay bump in your current role, or start off in a new field with a slightly-above-entry-level role

Diplomas cover the skills and knowledge you need for entry-level jobs, but also for more senior work (like supervising and managing) or independent work (like running your own business). There’s some technical stuff, but also a lot of applied theory. ‘Applied theory’ is where you get given a bunch of information and facts, and you have to use that to make your own independent decisions.

You can sometimes go straight into a diploma if you have other qualifications, or if you have the right basic literacy skills. Other times, you might have to start off with a certificate course and build your way up. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; building up your knowledge slowly can help it stick better in the long term. Plus, you can sometimes get credit for a certificate to go into a diploma, so it might not take too much more time.

Degrees: focus on comprehensive knowledge

Do this if: you want deeper knowledge and understanding of your chosen field, and a pathway to work up to being an expert

In a degree, you get to know all the details of how and why things work. You might have some practical skills tests still. For example, if you study science, you might have practical tests in a lab. Or if you study art, you might have to produce work in a studio. But there’s also a lot of information and theory to take in. In fact, there’s so much to cover that most full degree programs take around three years.

For some jobs, you legally have to have a degree just to get your foot in the door. In other jobs, it’s not strictly necessary, but employers prefer it and might put it as a requirement in job ads. In fact, for some jobs where you used to be able to learn on the job, things are now so competitive that a degree is considered a basic requirement.

If you’re not sure you’re ready for a degree, or if you want to start working in your chosen field as soon as possible, that doesn’t mean you can’t go to uni or that you’ll never go and get a degree. In fact, lots of certificates and diplomas can be part of a pathway to university study. For example, some people complete a certificate or diploma, then start working in an entry-level role in their chosen field while they study a degree. Other people use a diploma to build their study skills and confidence before launching into a degree. Some universities offer course credit or ‘advanced placement’ if you have a relevant diploma, meaning you can skip ahead to the second semester or second year of the degree program. If you think a degree might be in your future, but not just yet, it’s a good idea to check with your preferred uni whether they offer this option.

Graduate certificates: extra knowledge and advanced job-ready skills

Do this if: you already have a degree or heaps of high-level work experience, but you want more knowledge and skills in a specialist area of your job

Graduate certificates are especially designed for people who have strong knowledge and experience in their job role, but want to work towards being a specialist or expert in a particular aspect of their work. As mentioned above, these courses might have a mix of technical/practical and theory stuff, like the level 3 and 4 certificates, but students are expected to think and work at a more advanced level. They’re expected to deal with more complex theories, use advanced critical thinking skills, analyse different sources of information, and come up with original ideas based on what they’ve learned.

Many graduate certificates and diplomas are delivered in a way that specifically caters to the busy schedules of people already working in demanding jobs. For example, in-person classes might be scheduled for evenings and weekends. Online graduate certificates offer the ultimate flexibility for those balancing work and personal commitments as well, or those with less regular and predictable schedules. Long story short, they’re accessible and doable for those with the right background knowledge and skills, and a commitment to pushing themselves further.
One interesting thing to note: graduate certificates and diplomas (level 8) are more advanced than regular certificates and diplomas (level 4/5), but they take about the same amount of time to complete. Don’t let that fool you though; there’s a lot of challenging learning packed in to those months.

Different educational challenge

At different levels there are different types of learning activities and opportunities, some more challenging than others. Lower level qualifications usually short content, neatly broken down one bit at a time. Degrees, often expected to read and deeply understand longer more complex texts. Both are valuable learning options but they have different outcomes and purposes.

Speaking of outcomes, the activities and assessments tend to be different between different levels as well. The main difference is that VET quals (certificate, diploma, graduate certificate) tend to have more practical assessments (examples), while higher education quals (degrees) have more knowledge assessments (examples). A good course will include training and help with each sort, so don’t worry if you’re bad at writing or nervous about practical assessment, but it’s something to consider.

Time taken

Still having trouble picking between a certificate, diploma or degree? Don’t forget to factor in your longer-term career and life plans, and how long it’ll take you to complete your chosen qualification.

Total study time is a major consideration for lots of prospective students, especially those who want to start working in a new field as soon as possible. At the same time, by choosing a quicker option, you might feel like you’re shutting yourself off from the benefits of a higher qualification.


The AQF and other rules around qualifications in Australia are designed so that you can work your way up from one level to the next. In other words, you can start off with a certificate, and build your way up slowly. There are lots of reasons to build up your qualification level bit by bit, including:

  • wanting to keep your options open
  • building your study skills
  • building your confidence
  • being able to work while you continue learning
  • not being over-qualified for the role you want at the time

Taking a pathway like this doesn’t have to take a whole lot longer than skipping ahead to the highest possible qualification you’re eligible for. In fact, you can often get credit towards a higher qualification from what you’ve studied in the qualification before. This can be in the form of credit points, skipping certain subjects, or skipping a whole chunk of a program. As stated above though, it’s a good idea to do a bit of research into the higher qualification you might do one day, and see what entry pathway options are available.

Long story short…

If you’re totally new to a particular job area, chances are a Certificate IV or Diploma course is a great place for you to start. Monarch Institute offers select professional and paraprofessional Certificate IV and Diploma qualification courses in a range of different areas, including accounting and bookkeeping, business, leadership, management, marketing, and more. Explore our courses today, and chat to one of our friendly course consultants about which qualification is right for you.

Any questions? Ask away!