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Editorial Articles

Editorial Volume-37

Understanding the National Skills Qualification Framework (NSQF)

Prabal Bhardwaj

The National Skills Qualification Framework (NSQF) organizes qualifications according to a series of levels of knowledge, skills and aptitude. These levels are defined in terms of learning outcomes which the learner must possess regardless of whether they were acquired through formal, non-formal or informal learning. In that sense, the NSQF is a quality assurance framework. It is, therefore, a nationally integrated education and competency based skill framework that will provide for multiple pathways, horizontal as well as vertical, both within vocational education, vocational training, general education and technical education, thus linking one level of learning to another higher level. This will enable a person to acquire desired competency levels, transit to the job market and, at an opportune time, return for acquiring additional skills to further upgrade their competencies.

The key elements of the NSQF provide:

a) National principles for recognising skill proficiency and competencies at different levels leading to international equivalency
b) Multiple entry and exit between vocational education, skill training, general education, technical education and job markets
c) Progression pathways defined within skill qualification framework
d) Opportunities to promote lifelong learning and skill development
e) Partnership with industry/ employers
f) A transparent, accountable and credible mechanism for skill development across various sectors
g) Increased potential for recognition of prior learning

The qualification framework is beneficial to schools, vocational education and training providers,  higher  education  institutes,  accrediting  authorities  as  well  as  industry  and its

Representative bodies, unions, professional associations and licensing authorities. The biggest beneficiaries of such a framework are the learners who can judge the relative value of a qualification at a particular level on the framework and make informed decisions about their career progression paths.


A paradigm shift from education based on inputs towards education based on learning outcomes is taking place. Outcomes-based learning is a widely used term. The shift to learning outcomes is important for a number of reasons:

a) It shifts focus from providers to users of education and training.
b) By explaining what a learner is expected to know, understand or be able to do at the end of a learning process, individuals are better able to see what is offered in a particular course and how this links with other courses and programs.
c) It increases transparency and strengthens accountability of qualifications – for the benefit of individual learners and employers.

The vast majority of the world’s industrialized and transition countries are reforming their qualifications, while at the same time developing frameworks to relate these qualifications to each other and to generally reflect new demands in society and the labour market. The development of these systems is often linked to changes in higher education, technical and vocational education and training (TVET) and lifelong learning.

Many countries worldwide are in the process of introducing qualification frameworks. Though the theoretical principles of all frameworks remain largely similar, the objectives of launching the frameworks vary. Whether the emphasis is on increasing the relevance and flexibility of education and training programs, easing recognition of prior learning, enhancing lifelong learning, improving the transparency of qualification systems, creating possibilities for credit accumulation and transfer, or developing quality assurance systems, Governments are increasingly turning to qualifications frameworks as a policy tool for reform.


In India, general education and vocational education & training have been operating  as separate verticals, with very little interaction between the two. This has led to hesitation amongst the youth in opting for vocational education and training as it is presumed that this avenue would preclude the concerned individual from being able to acquire higher degrees and qualifications. In order to facilitate mobility from vocational to general education, and vice-versa, a qualification framework for India, i.e. the National Skill Qualification Framework (NSQF) will help make qualifications more understandable and transparent.

The need for the NSQF arises due to the following additional reasons:

a. Till now the focus of education and training has been almost entirely on inputs. The NSQF is based on an outcomes-based approach, and each level in the NSQF is defined and described in terms of competency levels that would need to be achieved. Job roles corresponding to each of these competency levels would be ascertained with the involvement of industry, through the respective Sector Skill Councils (SSCs).
b. Pathways of learning and progression, especially on the vocational education and training front, are generally unclear or absent. There is no clear provision for vertical or horizontal mobility. The NSQF will make the progression pathways transparent so that institutes, students and employers are clear as to what they can or cannot do after pursuing a particular course and address the issues of inequity and disparity in qualifications
c.There is lack of uniformity in the outcomes associated with different qualifications across institutions, each with its own duration, curriculum, entry requirements as well as title. This often leads to problems in establishing equivalence of certificates/diplomas/degrees in different parts of the country, which in turn impacts the employability and mobility of students
d. The negative perception associated with vocational education and training can be significantly removed by the development of quality qualifications that also permit acquisition of higher qualifications, including degrees and doctorates
e. There exist a large section of people who have acquired skills in the informal sector but who do not have the necessary formal certifications to attest to their skills. As a competency-based and outcomes based qualification framework, NSQF will facilitate
Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) that is largely lacking in the present education and training scenario
f. Majority of Indian qualifications are not recognized internationally and vice-versa. This creates a problem for the students and workers as their international mobility is adversely affected and they often have to undergo a course again to get a qualification that is recognized in the host country. The NSQF will also help alignment of Indian qualifications to international qualifications in accordance with relevant bilateral and multilateral agreements. Many countries are already in the process of aligning their qualifications to international qualifications through qualification frameworks
g. The credit accumulation and transfer system that will be integrated in the NSQF will allow people to move between education, vocational training and work at different stages in their lives according to their needs and convenience. It will be possible for a student to leave education domain, get some practical experience in industry and return to studies to gain qualifications to progress higher in his chosen career


The objectives of the NSQF are to provide a framework that:

a. Accommodates the diversity of the Indian education and training systems
b. Allows the development of a set of qualifications for each level, based on outcomes which are accepted across the nation
c. Provides structure for development and maintenance of progression pathways which provide access to qualifications and assist people to move easily and readily between different education and training sectors and between those sectors and the labour market
d. Gives individuals an option to progress through education and training and gain recognition for their prior learning and experiences
e. Underpins national regulatory and quality assurance arrangements for education and training
f. Supports and enhances the national and international mobility of persons with NSQF-compliant qualifications through increased recognition of the value and comparability of Indian qualifications

The NSQF is a quality assurance framework - it facilitates the awarding of credit and supports credit transfer and progression routes within the Indian education and training system. It seeks to help everyone involved in education and training to make comparisons between qualifications offered in the country, and to understand how these relate to each other.


The National Skill Qualification Framework is composed of ten levels, each representing a different level of complexity, knowledge and autonomy required to demonstrate the competence commensurate for that level. Level one of the framework represents the lowest complexity while level ten represents the highest complexity. The levels are defined by criteria expressed as learning outcomes. Volume of learning denoting notional time taken to acquire qualification may also be indicated for some levels and some sectors, but it is important to note that the NSQF Levels are not related directly to years of study. They are defined by the extent of demands made of the learner in broad categories of competence, i.e. professional knowledge, professional skill, core skill and responsibility. Over a lifetime of learning, individuals will move to higher from lower levels or across levels of qualifications as they take on new learning and acquire new skills.

Each NSQF level is defined by a set of descriptors expressed as learning outcomes. The level descriptors are designed to allow broad comparisons to be made between outcomes of learning. However, it is not the case that every qualification will or should have all of the characteristics set out in the level descriptors. Each qualification at an NSQF level may be further defined with reference to curriculum, notional contact hours, subjects, duration of studies, workload, trainer quality and type of training institution, to indicate what is expected of the learner in terms of ability to do or apply at the end of the learning process. The positioning of two or more qualifications at the same level only indicates that they are broadly comparable in terms of the general level of outcome. It does not indicate that they necessarily have the same purpose or content.

Some other issues associated with the NSQF are given below:

a. Curriculum Packages: The competency based curriculum packages would consist of syllabus, student manual, trainers guide, training manual, trainer qualifications, assessment and testing guidelines and multimedia packages and e-material. These will be developed for each NSQF level, and where relevant, for specific Qualification Packs (QPs) identified by the SSCs. This may be done by such agencies as the Ministries/ Departments, Sector Skills Councils and Regulatory Bodies  may designate, or any other body, in accordance with the NSQF. NSQF curricula should  be modular, allowing for skill accumulation and facilitating exit and entry. Curricula design will also be aligned to a credit framework that reflects credits earned and competencies acquired. Training of trainers would also be aligned to the NSQF.
b. Industry Engagement: Since the NSQF is based on an outcomes-based approach, participation of the industry and employers is a critical prerequisite for the success of NSQF. Vocational education, vocational training, general education and skill development courses will be designed, developed, delivered, and learners assessed and certified in accordance with the NSQF in consultation with SSCs, industry and employers. In addition to this the industry may also provide support in terms of providing training institutions.
c. Horizontal and vertical mobility: For horizontal and vertical mobility to take place, the following are essential:
Each level is linked to the ones above and below it by a series of steps. If these steps in any industry sector or academic domain are missing, the NSQF would help identify and map these missing gaps.
These gaps would have to be filled, and the key administrative ministry, regulatory bodies already operating in that sector, the SSCs and other stakeholders being part of the NSQC, would need to be consulted in the process.

The degree of lateral mobility that is considered desirable would have to be identified by the NSQC, and the same would have to be facilitated through on- going credit accumulation and transfer.

Accordingly, the NSQF would require such regulatory institutions (e.g. UGC, AICTE, NCVT, Technical and School Boards etc.) to define each of their entry and exit parameters in terms of competencies ascribable to that level of the NSQF so that vertical progression in vocational education would be strengthened. If necessary, reservations for individuals progressing though these channels can be considered and provided for. For instance, the system would permit vocational pass outs of Class X – XII, ITIs and polytechnics to gain entry into higher education programs in vocational/technical/general education courses including degree level courses such as the Bachelor of Vocational Studies (B.Voc.), notified by the University Grants Commission. Taking into account the competencies acquired and the credits accumulated, it would also be possible to change courses, if desired. Further, persons with skills shall have the option to move between vocational education, vocational training, general and higher education or vice versa at various stages, using pathways provided by the school boards, universities and colleges. If there are “competency gaps” identified in a candidate, a “bridge course” based on modular curricula to acquire those competencies may be imparted by the receiving Institution.

d. International comparability: The NSQF will provide a means of articulation and alignment of the Indian Skill Qualification levels with those of other countries and regions. This will help in the mobility of Indian NSQF-aligned Qualification holders to work in and/or relocate to other parts of the world. The NSQF will also be the means of interface with the various geographical regional frameworks that are developing across the world.

                LEVEL DESCRIPTORS

There are ten levels under NSQF starting from Level 1 to Level 10.

i. Each level of the NSQF is associated with a set of descriptors made up of five outcome statements, which describe in general terms, the minimum knowledge, skills and attributes that a learner needs to acquire in order to be certified for that level.
ii. Each level of the NSQF is described by a statement of learning outcomes in five domains, known as level descriptors. These five domains are:
a. Process
b. Professional knowledge
c. Professional skill
d. Core skill and
e. Responsibility


Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) is a very important associated function of the NSQF, especially in the Indian context where majority of the workforce has not received formal training. The NSQF will help individuals who have gained learning informally, such as through life, work and voluntary activities to have this learning recognized. This will include knowledge and skills gained:

a. Outside of formal learning situations
b. Through informal learning and training in the workplace, the community and/or the voluntary sector
c. From continuing professional development activities
d. From independent learning

The NSQF is the joint responsibility of many stakeholders and each has its own role to play  in its development, implementation and maintenance. The roles/responsibilities of the main stakeholders are listed below:

a. National Skill Development Agency (NSDA)
The NSDA has been mandated to anchor and operationalize the NSQF to ensure that quality and standards meet sector specific requirements. The NSDA will also facilitate the setting up of professional certifying bodies in addition to the existing ones. In performing the above functions, the NSDA will be ensuring that the NSQF acts as a quality assurance framework and facilitates capacity building.
b. Sector Skills Councils (SSCs)
Sector Skill Councils are industry-led national partnership organizations that will bring together all the stakeholders from their respective sectors. Based on the needs of the  industries in concerned sector, the SSCs are developing the NOSs and QPs for the various job roles in their sectors, and they will align the same to appropriate levels of the NSQF. They will work to supplement the existing vocational training and education system for the  Industry Sector in meeting the entire value chain’s requirements of appropriately trained manpower in quantity and quality across all levels on a sustained and evolving basis.
c. Central Ministries
The Central Ministries, being at the apex of the issues in their administrative control, will have to provide the leadership to ensure that all stakeholders align the programs being offered by institutions/bodies under their aegis to the NSQF.
d. State Governments
The institutions/bodies under the control of the respective State Governments will be encouraged to align their learning programmes to the NSQF, as this would facilitate greater mobility for individuals holding such qualifications. The State Governments will also help determine the modalities for ensuring that while regional variations are provided for, the  same do not undermine the quality assurance associated with the NSQF.
e. Regulatory Institutions.
All the existing regulatory institutions (e.g. UGC, AICTE, NCVT, Technical and School Boards etc.) would define their entry and exit competencies and qualifications in terms of NSQF levels so that provision of vertical progression in both general and vocational  education would be strengthened and vocational pass outs are able to gain entry into the respective portals of higher education in the vocational/technical/ general education courses including degree level courses.
f. Training Providers/Institutes/Institutions

All training providers would have to organise their courses/programmes to ensure alignment with NSQF levels.


(The author is Consultant, National Skill Development Agency, Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, New Delhi, email: prabalbhardwaj@gmail.com)