Do you already know that you want to start a career in engineering, but you aren’t sure about what route to take? Or are you struggling to decide whether you should enrol for a technical engineering course or an engineering degree? The best way to make sure you make the correct decision is to do thorough research on your different options.

Here are 9 differences that will help you compare a technical engineering qualification with an engineering degree:


1. Level of qualification

The most basic difference between a university degree and a technical engineering course such as a national certificate or diploma will be the level of qualification that you receive.

Click on the link to see where each type of qualification is ranked on the South African National Qualifications Framework (NQF):  National Qualifications Framework (NQF) Levels

On its own, a difference in level of qualification doesn’t mean much. What does matter, however, is how this relates to other factors such as those listed below:


2. Course content

A degree in engineering is often much more theoretical and academic, while a technical engineering course usually focuses on teaching students practical applications.

For example: An engineer with a degree will be better suited to a project management position at an automotive manufacturer, taking on the responsibility of assigning tasks, analysing production data, writing reports, and overseeing manufacturing processes.

The engineer with the technical qualification will, on the other hand, be the person who actually does the technical work. This will include things like calibrating machinery, testing processes, doing quality control, and maintaining machinery.


3. Specialisation

The degree programmes you generally find at universities in South Africa are broad, comprehensive programmes, such as:

  • Civil Engineering
  • Mechanical Engineering
  • Process Engineering

Technical certificate and diploma programmes are often much more specialised, giving you a unique qualification in engineering fields such as:

  • Millwright work
  • Fitting and turning
  • Boilermaking
  • Motor mechanics

The benefit of specialisation is that you will have in-depth training in a specific field, qualifying you for a particular job. The drawback of this, however, is that you won’t be able to qualify for a wider range of positions within engineering with just that qualification.


4. Completion time

An engineering degree generally takes 4 years of full-time studying to complete. To attain your qualification, you have to complete all 4 years of study.

A national certificate or diploma in engineering is divided into separate courses, each taking 1 year to complete. For example: you can do an N1 in Motor Mechanics and receive your National Certificate before moving on to earning your N2 qualification.

To receive a national diploma in engineering, however, you also have to complete a learnership programme at an approved employer.


5. Places of study

A degree in engineering can only be attained at a university. A technical qualification, however, can be completed at a number of different institutions, including:

  • TVET colleges
  • Private distance learning colleges (such as Oxbridge Academy)
  • Technical universities (universities of technology)

Each of these types of institutions also have their own entry requirements. Getting into a university is, for example, much more difficult than getting into a TVET college.


6. Affordability

One of the biggest factors that influences a lot of students’ decision-making is funding. Unfortunately, the fees at South African universities are notoriously high.

Colleges offering technical qualifications are generally much more affordable. Many colleges, including Oxbridge Academy, structure their fees in ways that make it easier for you to afford your studies, allowing you to:

  • Pay for your course in interest-free monthly instalments.
  • Enrol for a national qualification from as little as R490 per month.
  • Receive a Special Merit Award to cover 25% of your next course’s fees if you pass your initial course with distinction.

If you have trouble funding your studies, download our FREE E-BOOK and learn all about bursaries, scholarships, student loans, and other funding options in South Africa:

How to Finance Your Studies E-Book


7. Professional Registration

You have to be registered with the Engineering Council of South Africa (as is the case in most other countries as well) in order to:

  • Perform consulting engineering work.
  • Take responsibility for the performance of engineering work.
  • Perform functions as laid down in certain statutes (e.g. the National Building Regulations).
  • Become a full member of some recognised institutes.

Depending on your qualification, you will be able to register within a certain category of engineering, such as:

  • Professional Engineer (Pr Eng)
  • Professional Engineering Technologist (Pr Tech Eng)
  • Professional Certificated Engineer (Pr Cert Eng)
  • Professional Engineering Technician (Pr Eng Techni)

Your professional title and credentials will thus depend on the type of qualification you have.


8. Employment prospects

Several types of jobs require you to have a degree. These are often higher-level engineering jobs such as civil engineering, or more senior positions such as project manager.

However, a technical certificate or diploma will prepare you for a number of specialised positions. Take a look at the 10 Highest Paying Jobs You Can Go Into Without a Degree and you will see a number of specialist engineering professions (such as ‘electrical technician’) for which you only require a technical qualification.


Finding the course that suits you best

At the end of the day, it is not about whether a degree is better than a technical qualification or not. What really matters is what type of qualification suits your individual needs and circumstances best.

If you want to find out more about the engineering courses offered by Oxbridge Academy—and whether they suit your needs—you can call us on 021 110 0200.


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This article was originally published on 2 June 2016, and has been updated for comprehensiveness and accuracy.