Degree-level qualifications

A step up

It is harder than ever in the OSH profession to become an unqualified success. A certificate in OSH management is a starting point, but if you want to move to the next stage, what are your options? Bridget Leathley reports on her own journey through the qualifications landscape. 

Degree-level qualifications/ A step-up
Illustration: Gary Neill

Words: Bridget Leathley
Illustration: Gary Neill

Practitioners aiming for Grad IOSH status to put them on the path to CMIOSH (bit.ly/2eNEk7r) will find a host of qualifications on the IOSH list that would entitle them to apply. They include the NEBOSH diploma, level 6 diplomas from other organisations, degrees and National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs), along with the newest addition to the stable, the National Compliance and Risk Qualification (NCRQ). 

So, if you are deciding what your next step should be, or mentoring a colleague considering this, what do you need to know about each qualification?

On the syllabus

International options

There are 36 IOSH-accredited higher education institutions worldwide, offering over 55 OSH programmes which meet the institution’s academic requirements for Graduate, Technical and Associate membership. As in the UK, the content may vary to include other subject areas such as the environment, construction or occupational health but essentially the occupational health and safety core requirements remain the same.
IOSH-accredited qualifications are offered in Republic of Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Macau, Mauritius, Malta, Bulgaria Macedonia, Oman, India, Malaysia and South Africa.
In addition, a number of UK universities have franchise agreements with educational institutions in those countries offering OSH programmes.

The crib sheet table at the bottom of the page summarises the topics covered in the NEBOSH diploma, the NCRQ and the City and Guilds syllabus for the NVQ. Each degree course has its own syllabus, so a careful study of the options is required. For example, bachelor courses at Middlesex, Leeds Beckett, Greenwich and Glasgow Caledonian universities all include environmental modules, along with occupational health and safety; Cardiff Metropolitan University’s BSc focuses on environmental health, but with enough occupational health and safety to satisfy IOSH’s requirements. 

At the next level, other specialisms are included – the University of Birmingham offers science of occupational health, Salford and Strathclyde have safety and the environment, Heriot-Watt has wellbeing, and Robert Gordon includes risk in its master’s programme.

In 2015, NEBOSH surveyed 1,400 safety and health professionals, past and present students, employers, professional bodies, course providers, examiners and regulators. Though respondents were generally positive about the technical know-how included in the NEBOSH diploma, the survey found that some employers and professionals wanted a stronger emphasis on soft skills such as leadership, strategic planning and budgeting. 

NEBOSH says its revised diploma syllabus, published in November 2015 and taught from September 2016, has changed to “re-emphasise a proportionate and sensible approach to risk and place greater emphasis on the leadership and soft skills required to influence change in an organisation”. Dr David Towlson of RRC Training, which supports NEBOSH and NVQ routes, presents a detailed analysis of the changes to the NEBOSH diploma syllabus in his blog at blog.rrc.co.uk

NCRQ says its course has a sharp focus on the softer skills and competences “such as justifying decisions, taking business performance into account, influencing the board, and on integrating health and safety into normal business functions”. 

An NVQ is not a course and there is no formal teaching – the assumption is that you will have learned most of what you know on the job

Tim Briggs CFIOSH, a former IOSH president, is chair of IOSH’s professional standards committee (PSC). The PSC oversees the institution’s core curriculum, which he says allows IOSH to assess the validity of programmes and whether they meet the standards for the level of qualification they offer. 

“IOSH-accredited qualifications are accredited to give everybody the opportunity to improve their knowledge and position within the safety and health profession,” he says.“You have to examine the different ways in which the various courses achieve this. In taking the stance it has done, IOSH is accepting that there are different routes to qualifications so people can pick a suitable course that fits into their lives and work patterns.” 

As course leader for the Leeds Beckett health and safety degrees, Briggs has his own view on the “softer skills”, saying such competences and skills are best grown over the longer term. 

“Students develop a deeper understanding on a degree course,” he says, “because there are more opportunities for engagement, more time to learn about skills requirements like presentation skills, budgeting, leadership, team working, problem solving and so on, and they have more opportunities to practise these skills in a safe learning environment.”

In class

Degrees offer the broadest range of academic learning opportunities, with lectures, tutorials, discussions and debates, and the time to explore online and paper resources. However, there are now also distance-learning master’s, for example at Robert Gordon, Greenwich and Heriot-Watt, and many undergraduate courses have increased the proportion of “self-study” hours supported by online resources.

Some people like the support offered in a traditional learning environment, and NEBOSH classroom courses involve seven weeks in front of a teacher, taken in one-week blocks, or on day-release over a longer period. The NEBOSH diploma can also be studied through distance learning or blended learning – some classroom and some distance learning. 

If there are enough students in a single company, you can find a training provider to run NEBOSH in-house. However much classroom time there is, all courses require self-motivated students to self-study, and the degree of support provided for that is another factor to check with each provider.

For the NVQ, each candidate is assigned an assessor to review their evidence. With the less expensive providers the assessment and support are remote (online or telephone); regular worksite visits may be more expensive but are more effective. Some providers offer supporting study materials or access to e-learning, and most now register candidates through an online portal. This allows them to upload their evidence – much as the IOSH initial professional development process works – rather than print it and post the documents. Some providers charge extra for face-to-face assessments.

The NVQ isn’t for everyone – needless to say, there isn’t a qualification out there that can claim the “one-size-fits-all” mantle. One NVQ candidate commented online: “I am beginning to wish that I just went for the diploma exams! Getting started is a nightmare for me. Just how do you do this NVQ? I picked some evidence and then submitted it ... but then the verifier says no!” However, another student said: “This is all evidence-based, so every time I complete something at work I print and keep it in the folder, simple.”

NVQ candidates have up to two years to complete their portfolio of evidence, but the support included in the price for NVQ registration varies; some organisations offer just six months and others 12, 18 or 24 months.

New arrivals

The NCRQ, as a route to Grad IOSH, made it on to IOSH’s approved list in January 2016. It is among more than 60 different providers for graduate level of membership. 

Andrew Barnett, Unison health and safety officer for Edinburgh City Council, enjoyed the interaction of a classroom course when he studied for his NEBOSH certificate and, having decided on the NCRQ for cost reasons, had been cautious about distance learning. 

Now he praises the support from NCRQ, the quality of the workbook, and the practical nature of the activities: “Instead of questions about the Manual Handling Operation regulations I’ve had to produce a manual handling assessment for a case study scenario, including recommendations.”

Veterinary nurse and practice safety officer Sarah Srih also enjoys the learning process: “Every module presents real-life scenarios and tasks to perform – for example, carry out a risk assessment, investigate an accident, write an email, prepare a presentation.”

In 2016, IOSH also gave accreditation for the National University of Ireland Galway’s higher diploma in occupational health and safety and MSc in occupational health and safety, and for the University of Sunderland’s MSc in health, safety and wellbeing. 

If you haven’t taken a first degree in the UK, you might be entitled to a student loan – there is no age limit

NUI Galway student Olivia Carty found the MSc course “perfect for working people ... The course runs two days a week and I find the content relevant and interesting”. 

For a full list of all IOSH-accredited courses, including routes into Associate, Technical and Graduate, visit www.iosh.co.uk/Membership/About-membership/Qualifications.  

For those pursuing degree courses, support varies between universities, but you can compare the results of the national student survey for undergraduate courses at unistats.direct.gov.uk. Though not all IOSH-accredited degrees are included on the site, if you can find a course from the same department there should be an indication of the type of support available. There appears to be no equally unbiased way of looking at other providers. 

Exam nerves

For some students, examinations are an opportunity to test and prove the depth and breadth of their knowledge. However, some lose their nerve when they walk through the door and stare at a blank answer paper.

The NEBOSH diploma has a clearly defined assessment path. There are three exams of three hours taken during the course and, as with GCSEs and A-levels, in the UK the whole country has to sit the exams at the same time on the same day – in January and July each year – at recognised exam centres. With degrees, the number and the type of exams will depend on the course. The course specification for Leeds Beckett’s safety, health and environmental management BSc includes exams, but the university admits that “though very effective in testing recall and analytical ability, examinations can be a poor means to explore other skills”. 

A range of other assessment methods is included, such as delivering presentations, carrying out risk assessments and writing scenario-based reports. Reflective work is also included to encourage students to consider their own personal professional development needs. These non-exam assessments sound similar to those on the NCRQ: scenario-based and workplace-themed. 

After the exams, NEBOSH diploma students must complete a work-based project, which, at 8,000 to 12,000 words, is similar in length to (or longer than) degree course dissertations. NVQs and the NCRQ do not have long projects – the latter’s vary in length depending on the type of product expected. 

According to NCRQ student Lily Joynes, SHEQ assistant for a firm of heat treatment engineers, there is no word count: “It tends to give you just an estimate for how many slides or pages something should be.” This is confirmed by fellow NCRQ student Barnett: “No word count – it’s guided by the length of time you have to complete them.” 

Traditionally, the best non-exam route for someone in a health and safety role already was the NVQ. This is not a course, and there is no formal teaching – the assumption being that the individual will have learned most of what they know on the job, or on short courses. 

As the City and Guilds syllabus explains, the NVQ is for those with “an autonomous role in their organisation for managing health and safety policy and practice”. It is not suitable for people trying to break into health and safety, for consultants providing services to an organisation but with no management control, for specialists such as DSE assessors, or for those whose roles require only basic health and safety training.

The key to the NVQs is the evidence of competence – under 11 headings – that the candidate must provide. This may include a risk assessment they have carried out at work, a policy they have written, or an audit they have undertaken. Candidates do not fail – their evidence either meets the criteria or they must revise and resubmit.

Time and money

For anyone funding their own training, the crucial question is how much the qualification will cost. If you have to work part-time instead of full-time to complete your studies, loss of income must be included in the budget. For others, flexibility is more important, with the ability to study at a time that suits and to take each assessment when ready. 

A full-time degree is the most time-consuming and the most expensive option, involving a large cut in income unless you work for a generous employer. 

Most undergraduate degree courses starting in 2017 will charge £9,250 a year. That’s nearly £28,000 for a three-year course, with a similar cost over a longer period for part-time study. If you haven’t taken a first degree, you might be entitled to a student loan – there is no age limit – with the loan paid back when you are in a job with a suitable salary. 

At the moment the income threshold for repayment is £17,495 a year but this could change each April. Loans are now available for master’s courses, but with different rules – see www.gov.uk/postgraduate-loan for details. Costs for a master’s range from £5,000 a year to more than £10,000. 

A classroom version of the NEBOSH diploma will cost almost as much as a low-cost master’s degree, with typical prices advertised around £4,000 to £5,000 plus the NEBOSH fee of £388. The NCRQ costs £1,150 including all assessments, and a number of correspondents online cited this as the reason for rejecting the NEBOSH option.

“The lower cost and the flexibility suited my needs perfectly,” said Joynes. “I’m able to fit it into my life without causing disruption to work or to my six-year-old.” 

However, since NCRQ is a distance learning course, a fairer comparison would be with distance learning versions of the NEBOSH diploma, and these are available from £1,195. Classroom courses require a commitment to particular dates for training and for assessments. The same courses through distance learning provide flexibility on when you can study, but assignment and exam dates are likely to be just as rigid. 

Many NCRQ and NVQ participants cite flexibility as an advantage – with both paths the timetable is specific to the individual. NEBOSH is available from more than 600 providers; the NCRQ is available from its eponymous provider only. Students praise the remote support but there is no classroom back-up for people who prefer to learn that way.

Degrees and the NEBOSH diploma also have the greatest flexibility to spread the course over a long period. You can take up to five years to complete the NEBOSH diploma, and in some cases a three-year undergraduate degree can be spread out over six years part-time. 

Many people will not want to take so long to qualify and, if you can do without a social life and are prepared to sit your three exams on three consecutive days, the NEBOSH diploma can be completed in as little as six months. Most people take around two years.

Those taking the NVQ route are normally expected to complete their evidence collection in two years, though watch out because some providers offer support for shorter periods of 18, 12 or even six months before requiring extra payments. It is possible to compile the evidence portfolio in as little as four months.

What people want

NEBOSH reported from its 2015 survey that employers ask for its diplomas because they “feel reassured that the knowledge their health and safety practitioners acquire, and their ability to apply that knowledge, is thoroughly put to the test as part of their studies”.

The body also reported that 98% of its students would recommend the qualifications to others. NCRQ is similarly positive about its success. 

City and Guilds has recently reviewed and redeveloped its level 5 NVQ diploma in Occupational Health and Safety Practice to better align the qualification with IOSH’s academic requirements. 

Unlike an exam or a case study, which allows you to display your knowledge, evidence of competence for the NVQ can only be from the sector in which the candidate is working. For this reason, NVQs are being developed to become more all-encompassing and transferable between different sectors. 

Some degrees provide the bonus of accreditation with another organisation, sometimes dependent on which modules you select. Look for Chartered Institute of Environmental Health membership at Cardiff, the British Occupational Hygiene Society at Greenwich and Birmingham, and the environment professionals’ body IEMA at Oxford Brookes.

The level 5 NVQ, NCRQ and NEBOSH level 6 qualifications are all regarded as equally valid for entry to Grad IOSH membership. The difference between the academic approaches and the evidence-based approach is the path to CMIOSH. Since NVQ holders have already provided evidence of competence, they must take an open-book exam. NEBOSH diploma and degree holders, having already completed many exams, must submit a portfolio of evidence instead.

IOSH has confirmed that applicants with NCRQ will follow the same path as for the NEBOSH diploma. NEBOSH says salaries for jobs that require applicants to hold a NEBOSH diploma are, on average, 16% higher than those for which a diploma is not specified (based on job adverts to February 2016). However, this could be a red herring, given that “NEBOSH diploma” has become a generic description for a level of qualification rather than a specific requirement. A healthy minority of OSH job ads do mention other qualifications, such as NCRQ or NVQ, but many resort to “or equivalent”.

“We often only state NEBOSH diploma or equivalent in the job description,” says Cherry Coleman, senior consultant at Bond Recruitment, “because that is what the employer has requested. However, candidates with equivalent qualifications will still apply. In selecting candidates to put forward we place as much importance on their experience as their qualifications. We will always put a candidate forward who has an NVQ or other equivalent qualifications if they have the ability and experience for the role.”

Shirley Parsons Associates takes a similar approach. “In order to consider the widest range of candidates, especially in the current candidate driven market, it’s important to look at all routes to Grad IOSH and CMIOSH. It is more about the cultural fit of the candidate than the route they took to gain their qualifications, so we meet clients and vet candidates to get the best matches.”

What is undoubtedly true is that Grad IOSH and CMIOSH status – accompanied by the right experience – will open up more career opportunities than Tech IOSH status. So what are you waiting for? 

IOSH provides a useful guide to routes to the different levels of IOSH membership at www.iosh.co.uk/Membership/About-membership/Membership-categories.aspx  



Bridget Leathley is a freelance health and safety consultant, providing risk management support in facilities, retail and office environments.  She delivers face-to-face safety training including IOSH and bespoke courses, and contributes to e-learning courses through evaluations and design work.  She has been writing for health and safety publications since 1996.  


  • I have taken varous NEBOSH

    Permalink Submitted by Geoff Wyatt TechIOSH AIIRSM on 24 November 2016 - 11:01 am

    I have taken varous NEBOSH exams but have opted for NVQ Level 5 H&S for my next qualification, for each unit (11) I have produced at least 7 -8k words to ensure i understand fully the subject matter, NEBOSH course trainers I have meet so far drum into you "look at the previous exam questions" and sure enough same question different situation, luck on the day is the feed back I get from fellow NEBOSHERS,however, on completing my NVQ I would like to say I fully back NVQ's I personally have learnt a geat deal and more important have in depth knowledge, so when i'm GradIOSH i will certainly lean towards those using NVQ when reviewing / recruiting, to navigate through NVQ does require plenty of "soft skills"

  • I have just completed the NVQ

    Permalink Submitted by Paul Barrett on 30 November 2016 - 12:08 pm

    I have just completed the NVQ 5, I found it a very good course and fortunately I had excellent support from the Company Directors allowing me to make changes to our policies and procedures which helped build my evidence.

  • I am one of the old school

    Permalink Submitted by James Coughlin on 30 November 2016 - 01:51 pm

    I am one of the old school who would dearly like to study the NEBOSH Diploma course but I feel that I am too old now and Have missed the boat, I also feel that my memory would not be good enough to do the exams anyway, so what is the point in trying.
    I also feel that NEBOSH Etc. do not take enough cognizance of the years of experience that people of my age 67 have in the HSE Business, I have over 15 years of full time work experience in HSE and about another 5 years doing it part time as part of my job in construction, do any of the diploma companies take any notice of this fact?
    Regards James

    • Good luck,.... have you

      Permalink Submitted by Billy on 18 January 2017 - 06:18 pm

      Good luck,.... have you looked at the other options ...ive done 3 NEBOSH exam based courses and have now turned to NVQ for the H&S diploma... there is something there for all ages keep looking mate

  • I have obtained MSc

    Permalink Submitted by Percival K Sebastian on 30 November 2016 - 01:52 pm

    I have obtained MSc (Occupational Safety and Health Management) at Hendon Campus, Middlesex University, London.
    Though I am willing to change my career for which I have done MSc, almost all of the employers requesting NEBOSH qualification for all the Health and Safety Employment. I have GradIOSH membership too. But still struggling to obtain health and safety role to earn CIMOSH that is my eager. I work in Healthcare sector.
    What can I do?

  • Very good article, however

    Permalink Submitted by JSP on 1 December 2016 - 11:49 am

    Very good article, however there is still a major problem in the recruitment of H&S professionals when it comes to 'equivalent qualifications'. Still I am asked why I haven't completed a Level 5 or 6 H&S qualification - yet have a Level 7 MSc in Safety which is itself an academic grade above the Diploma. Good to highlight the potential quals but unless those with the power to recruit understand the 'Academic Level' structure shall we say, there's going to be a disconnect.

  • Hi James,

    Permalink Submitted by John Thistlethwaite on 1 December 2016 - 04:26 pm

    Hi James,
    I passed my NVQ Diploma aged 67, dont doubt yourself go for it, mine was Construction based having spent all of my working life in Construction and found it quite easy once you get your head around setting time aside to do the modules.

  • Worth mentioning that if you

    Permalink Submitted by Nick Pahl on 11 January 2017 - 01:26 pm

    Worth mentioning that if you are a health professional there is the option of working in occupational health and medicine
    if you are doctor - see http://www.fom.ac.uk/education/examinations/diplomas/doccmed
    if you are a psychologist - see http://www.bps.org.uk/bpslegacy/ac
    if you are nurse - looking for a diploma or MSc in occupational health nursing (courses across the UK) or specific courses if you are a physiotherapist

    Nick Pahl
    Society of Occupational Medicine

  • As I am relatively new to the

    Permalink Submitted by Jason Kennedy on 19 January 2017 - 08:16 am

    As I am relatively new to the H&S industry with only 2.5 years experience, I am at that stage were I believe I need to make a concerted effort to increase my knowledge and gain further qualifications.
    I must say this article is extremely helpful and well written, I am now fully aware of what options are open to me and I believe it is a case of what course suits each individuals current situation, for me working in the construction sector the NVQ or NCRQ are more attractive options due to their hands on approach and more practical assessments.

  • Excellent article for safety

    Permalink Submitted by Rajesh on 13 June 2018 - 08:17 am

    Excellent article for safety professionals

  • NCRQ is very good option for

    Permalink Submitted by Anonymous on 19 July 2018 - 05:05 pm

    NCRQ is very good option for me, it is flexible, cost effective, current, modern way of teaching, workbook is very clear and teaching me with case studies. It pushes me make a research which I learn more then I expected with this way. It is excellent option specially for those who have no health and safety background.

  • Having taken Nebosh Part 1

    Permalink Submitted by Gary Jefcoate on 23 July 2018 - 05:20 pm

    Having taken Nebosh Part 1 Diploma in 2006 and achieved Tech IOSH, where do I go now to get up to Grad IOSH without having to retake similar to what I have already done? Is there any acceptance of accreditation of prior learning by NVQ or NCRQ against total number of modules required? I have been in Health and Safety since 2000 having taken a CIEH Advanced Health and Safety Certificate in early 2000's.
    Any constructive suggestions would be gratefully accepted.

  • Hi - I have just enrolled in

    Permalink Submitted by Kgb73 on 16 October 2018 - 07:28 pm

    Hi - I have just enrolled in the NCRQ Qualification after considering NEBOSH route. For me, time out of work and there being no night courses offered close to home/workplace were huge factors in my decision. Having spoken to a young H&S professional, I decided for definite the NCRQ route for me owing to their enthusiasm for the more practical modern learning methods of NCRQ. Today I was on a CDM training course where the trainer was ‘old school’. I asked his opinion about the NCRQ and was given an unenthusiastic reply stating the Industry recognise NEBOSH and I wouldn’t be doing my career any good with NCRQ. With archaic opinions about education routes on the premise that storing information and passing exams is best from trainers, I fear the Industry will take a slow response to new ways of learning. Feeling very deflated about my positive step to self fund and self learn


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