Higher National Qualifications (HNs)

SQA's Higher National Certificate (HNC) and Higher National Diploma (HND) are recognised brand leaders and industry standards that employers have come to rely on. HNC/HNDs were first introduced in 1925 and have developed over the years into the qualifications they are today.

HNCs and HNDs are traditionally seen as the leading qualifications for technical and first-line management professions. Many HNDs 'articulate' with university degrees - they allow candidates to progress to the second or third year of degree programmes.

Higher National qualifications are Unit-based and are developed by SQA with assistance from colleagues in further and higher education institutions.

Following an extensive consultation process, in March 2003 SQA agreed revised design principles for HNCs and HNDs that will ensure that HN Group Awards continue to meet the needs of end users. A timescale has been agreed for re-validating HN Group Awards. 

There is a revised specification for HN Units which will be used for all HNC/HNDs designed or revised using the 2003 design principles - the revised Unit specification format explains:

The format of the Unit specification has been revised to encourage a more holistic approach to assessment. All Higher National Units will eventually be re-formatted to the revised HN Unit specification as they become subject to review and re-validation. This is an on-going process, so check SQA's website for current HN Unit specifications.

All HNC/HNDs validated under the 2003 design principles will include mandatory Graded Units. These Graded Units ensure that candidates have achieved the principal aims of the Group Award by assessing the candidates' ability to integrate and apply the knowledge and/or skills gained in the individual HN Units. 

Codes and levels

All Higher National Units and Group Awards are assigned a '4+2' identifying code by SQA on our Awards Processing System (APS). For example:

G755 15

G756 16

As of December 2004, Scottish Credit and Qualification Framework (SCQF) levels and credit points are used in SQA certification wherever possible. One SCQF credit point equates to a notional block of ten hours of learning - for Higher National Qualifications, this is made up of lecturer input combined with an equal amount of self-directed learning on the part of the candidate.

This means that a single Higher National Unit is worth eight credit points (40 hours of teaching, plus 40 hours of self-directed learning); but Units can be worth less or more - eg double Units are worth 16 points. See the SCQF section for more details.


Under the old rules for HNC/HNDs, all HN Units were 'unlevelled'. This is identified in our coding system with the suffix '04'. For example:

D2V5 04

All revised Higher National Units (including Graded Units for Group Awards) validated under the 2003 design principles will be allocated a level appropriate to their position in the SCQF. Any existing Higher National Units imported into a Group Award that has been validated under the pilot design rules will also be allocated to an SCQF level and assigned credit points. Our coding system will reflect this. For example, for HN Units allocated to SCQF level 7 or SCQF level 8, the element of the SQA '4+2' code representing this is '34' for level 7 and '35' for level 8. For the revised Unit Preparing Financial Forecasts:

DE3J 35

Group Awards

Under the 2003 design principles, HNCs are designed to be at level 7 on the SCQF and will have 96 SCQF credit points, at least 48 of which must be at level 7. HNCs normally include one group award Graded Unit of 8 SCQF credit points at SCQF level 7.

HNDs are designed at level 8 on SCQF, have 240 credit points and incorporate at least 64 SCQF points at level 8. HNDs normally include one Graded Unit of 8 SCQF credit points at SCQF level 7 and 16 SCQF credit points of group award Graded Unit(s) at SCQF level 8.

See the SCQF section for more details.

GRAPHIC: Lightbulb icon. Recommended reading/further information

The HN pages of SQA's website are regularly updated and are an important source of information. Access the HN homepage.

To order copies of these publications, please contact SQA's Business Development & Customer Support Team by e-mail: mycentre@sqa.org.uk, or telephone:
0303 333 0330.