Everything you need to know about Australia's tertiary education system

By Annie Rose Stathes, edited by Valeri Boyle
Published April 14, 2014

There are 37 public universities in Australia, two private universities, and a number of other specialized higher-education institution. Amongst these universities, seven are ranked amongst the top 100 in the world by QS World University Rankings. Such universities are competitive with high-ranking schools in other English-speaking countries such as the United States, Canada, and England.

The University of Sydney is Australia’s oldest university and also a member of the “Group of Eight”, a coalition of universities comprised of Australia’s most prominent and respected universities. Other Go8 universities include: The Australian National University, The University of Adelaide, the Monash University, The University of Melbourne, The University of New South Wales, The University of Queensland, The University of Sydney, and the University of Western Australia. These schools are spread throughout the country, and all eight schools have primary campuses in Australia’s six largest capital cities. Most of the public colleges and universities in Australia offer certificate, undergraduate, and graduate degree programs.

Included in Australia’s tertiary education alongside traditional colleges and universities are Technical and Further Education (TAFE) colleges and Vocation Education and Training (VET) providers. These colleges and providers primarily offer certificate courses, but also offer some undergraduate degree programs.

A Year in the Life of a Student in Australia

Most universities in Australia are on the two-semester system, offering courses in 14-20 week increments with short breaks in the winter and summer. Many schools also offer optional short summer semesters. Students either live on or off campus during the semesters depending on schools requirements and students’ preferences.

Most undergraduate degree programs in Australia require four years of full-time study to complete, while graduate degree programs typically require two to six. The amount of time it ultimately takes to complete a program depends, of course, upon how many classes students take per semester, and whether or not students take additional courses over summers.

Many universities in Australia require international students to earn a certain number of credits each semester, so international students should ensure they are able to fulfill a school’s requirements prior to enrolling.

Universities in Australia are English-language schools. This means that international students from non-English speaking countries will likely need to take the TOEFL to prove that their English-language literacy is strong enough for college-level academia.

Paying for University in Australia

Attending university in Australia means taking advantage of one of the most developed and respected educational systems in the world. However, while Australia’s higher education institutions are of high quality, they are also amongst the most expensive in the world. Add to the cost of tuition the costs of book, room, and board, and the cost of attending college in Australia is quite high.

Also, while the Australian government offers numerous programs to Australian citizens and permanent residents to make the cost of attending school affordable, it does not offer loans or fee-reduction schemes to international students. International students typically pay full tuition or “out-of-state” tuition, and often times have to prove prior to enrolling that they can pay for school.

However, many tertiary institutions in Australia offer scholarships to qualifying international students to help tame the high costs of education. These and other forms of financial aid—from your own government, private organizations, and non-profit and non-governmental organizations, for example—can help pay for your education in Australia, if you qualify.

Accreditation in Australia

The performance of tertiary education institutions in Australia is assessed by two entities: the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) and Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA). Both modes of assessment are relatively new and measure schools’ processes, procedures, and documentation. TEQSA and ERA are operated by the Australian government and authorize public universities to self-accredit. Schools that are not self-accrediting are accredited by States and Territories. Prior to attending university in Australia, it is important to confirm that the school of your choice is accredited, and that its credits will readily transfer to other schools of your choice.

The Benefits of Studying in Australia

Besides the opportunity to study in a beautiful country, one of the greatest benefits of attending university in Australia is being able to study and learn the English language. This is especially beneficial for students in China and Malaysia (for example) for whom knowing English thoroughly will prepare them for careers in industries dependent on English-speaking employees. This is also beneficial for students from India, a country with increasing economic ties to English speaking countries. While English is one of the primary languages spoken in India, students from India can learn specialized terminology in the English language that is directly connected to their future careers.

Also, to all of the countries in proximity to Australia, Australia offers an alternative to studying in the U.S. (which is quite far away from many countries close to Australia) and England (which is a great place to study, but perhaps not the environment in which some students want to study).

Annie Rose Stathes is a Colorado-based writer, teacher and political scientist. Her background is in international affairs and she holds a Master of Arts degree in Political Science.

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