Australian Education System

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The Australian education system comprises of primary, secondary, and tertiary education. In Australia, “school education” refers to primary and secondary education, while tertiary education, also known as postsecondary education, includes vocational education and training (VET), and higher education (generally universities).

School Education

School education is similar across all of Australia with only minor variations between states and territories. School education (primary and secondary) is compulsory between the ages of six and sixteen (Year 1 to Year 9 or 10). School education is divided into:

  • Primary School: Runs for seven or eight years, starting at Kindergarten/Preparatory through to Year 6 or 7
  • Secondary School: Runs for three or four years, from Years 7 to 10 or 8 to 10
  • Senior Secondary School: Runs for two years, Years 11 and 12

Primary, senior, and senior secondary education is offered at government-funded public schools, as well as at private schools, which include Catholic and Independent schools. Public schools are free for Australian citizens and permanent residents, and attended by nearly two thirds of the children in Australia.

Education is compulsory until age 16 (Year 10) in Australia. More than half of the Australian population between ages 15-24 continues their studies beyond the compulsory Year 10. Students earn a Senior Secondary Certificate of Education once they successfully complete secondary education (Year 12).

Vocational Education

Vocational Education and Training (VET) is a type of tertiary education intended for students who want to move straight to the workforce and work in careers that do not require a university degree. VETs provide a more hands-on alternative to university education, offering courses and training for semi-skilled, skilled, trade, and paraprofessional careers.

Australia’s VET sector is based on a partnership between governments and industry, and is regulated nationally. VET qualifications are provided by government colleges, called Technical and Further Education (TAFE) institutions, as well as by private colleges. Some senior secondary schools also offer VET courses as part of their curriculum. Collectively, these institutions are referred to Registered Training Organizations (RTOs).

VET qualifications include certificates (from levels I to IV), diplomas, and advanced diplomas, which may be completed on their own or in combination with on-the-job training with an employer. Graduate certificates, graduate diplomas, and Bachelors can also be earned at some VETs.

Technical and Further Education (TAFE) Institutions

Technical and Further Education (TAFE) institutes are government-funded colleges for vocational learning. TAFEs can be very large institutions with a large variety of course options, and frequently have more students enrolled than many universities. In fact, the TAFE sector is the largest education and training sector in Australia.

Some TAFEs are part of universities, and can offer Bachelor degrees through the affiliated university.

Private Colleges

Vocational training and education is also offered at private college in Australia. Unlike TAEFs, private colleges are typically smaller and specialize in 1-2 areas of study, focusing on a particular industry.

VET in Schools

Some senior secondary schools also offer VET programs. Students can earn the VET Certificate I, II, III and IV alongside their senior secondary certificate of education.

Higher Education

Higher Education is a form of tertiary education which leads to Bachelor, Master, and Doctoral Degrees. Higher Education courses (programs) are offered at all Australian universities, and at a number of VET institutions. Note that in the Australian context, “course” refers to the academic program that the student chooses to pursue.


Universities are Australia’s primary Higher Education Institutes (HEIs). There are 41 universities in Australia. Australian universities are government-funded, except for one private and two international universities. Universities offer a large variety of undergraduate (Bachelor) and postgraduate (Master and Doctoral) degree courses in all areas of study. Some universities have a dual-status, providing both VET and higher education courses.

Universities have a more academic focus, with heavy emphasis on essay-writing and exams. Students get much deeper knowledge of the field or subject matter they are specializing in (referred to as their chosen “major” or “area of specialization”). They also strengthen their personal attributes, developing professional and transferable skills rather than focusing only on industry-specific occupational skills.

Due to the in-depth curriculum, undergraduate university courses are typically three or four years long, resulting in Bachelor and Honours Bachelor degrees. Some universities also offer two-year Associate Bachelor degree courses/programs.

A Bachelor degree is typically required for acceptance into professional programs, such as medicine or law, as well as for academic jobs, research-based careers, and professional roles like engineering or teaching. A Bachelor degree is also required to pursue any postgraduate degrees, which can be a study-based or research-based Master, followed by a Doctorate degree, which is the highest level of academic standing students can achieve.

The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) regulates and provides quality assurance for Australia’s higher education institutions to ensure students get the same high calibre of education regardless of where they study.