All you need to know about the Australian higher education system


Almost as challenging as obtaining an actual university degree is understanding the numerous different higher education systems in operation across the world.  

So, let’s make things simpler by breaking down Australia’s higher education system into simple, straightforward terms.

Types of Tertiary institution

Australia’s Tertiary institution system can be divided into two sections: universities and vocational schools.

Vocational Schools

The Australian public vocational system is known as TAFE: Technical and Further Education. These institutes are usually funded by the governments of the state or territory in which they are located. TAFE institutes reward qualifications–Certificates I, II, III, and IV, as well as Diplomas and Advanced Diplomas–in line with Australia’s Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector. In certain niche areas of studies, some TAFE schools can also award Bachelor’s degrees. 

A select number of TAFE institutes focus on just one area of specialized study. However, in general the TAFE system offers courses and degrees in many fields of interest, ranging from business and hospitality to visual arts and information technology.

Very often, vocational schools have official agreements with universities, allowing students to transfer the credits they’ve accumulated at a TAFE institute towards an advanced Bachelor’s degree. Universities also may offer guaranteed acceptance if a student achieves the minimum grade requirement from their coursework at TAFE.

Vocational degrees can also be obtained at private vocational institutes known as Registered Training Organizations (RTO). There are over a thousand such institutes across Australia.


The Australian university system is made up of 41 universities; of those, 37 are public and therefore funded by the Commonwealth government. 

Consideration for admission to Australia’s public universities is a centralized process in each of Australia’s states and territories. However, international students are often selected by the universities themselves, instead of the wider selection body.

Although domestic students frequently receive scholarships and financial aid from the Commonwealth, international students are not eligible for these awards. Most students who study abroad in Australia pay full tuition fees, unless they receive support from their home university or a third-party sponsor.

An HSBC report in 2013 announced that Australia was the world’s most expensive place to study abroad, with average tuition fees and living expenses totaling nearly $38,000 USD a year. (The U.S. ranked second most expensive, and the UK third.) However, it is also the most popular country for international students, suggesting that high costs haven’t been deterring students from overseas.

Course lengths

The majority of Bachelor’s degrees in Australia require three years of study. Students can opt to do a fourth year, referred to as “honours,” in which a thesis is required. This honours qualification would then be listed as part of the degree; for example, “Chemistry with Honours.”

To obtain the Bachelor’s degree, students must pick a major, or a focus in a particular subject area. Universities set specific general and major requirements that the student must fulfill in order to earn the degree. 

In addition to a major, students have the option to minor in a particular field. A minor requires fewer courses than a major, but is still a specialization in a certain academic area. Tacking on a minor does not usually increase the time needed to graduate.

Some universities allow students to do double degrees, in which they major in two fields of study. This often does delay the time to graduate beyond three years. 

Masters programs across Australia are one to two years long, depending on the program.

Academic expectations

As in the case of tertiary education in many parts of the world, students in Australia are encouraged but not required to attend lecture. Final marks are usually dependent on one or two exams per term. Of course, certain courses like laboratory work or language classes may place more emphasis on attendance, homework assignments, and participation.

The academic culture in Australia is very much based on student involvement. Students are encouraged to speak up in lectures, ask questions and offer opinions (even contrary to those of the professor). Such active engagement is valued much more highly than simply copying and regurgitating lecture notes. Similarly, it is expected that students demonstrate critical thinking in exams rather than mere memorization of lecture notes, and marks are rewarded accordingly.  

Plagiarism is taken very seriously in the Australian higher education system, and if caught, the student may be asked to leave the university in the most extreme of cases. 

So, clear as mud? Hopefully the above information has helped a little as you approach continuing your education in Australia!