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Navigating education in Australia

Schools, universities, courses and costs - we’re covering it all. Here’s your complete guide to understanding the education system in Australia.
By · March 19, 2024
Navigating education in Australia

The Australian education system is highly regarded as one of the best in the world. In fact the country was ranked 3rd globally as a study destination for international students.

With four core levels of education on offer including primary, secondary, senior secondary and tertiary, there’s a learning option for every age group.

So what do each of these levels actually look like?
Where are the best schools and universities?
And, what are the most popular courses?

We’re diving into all of this and more.

The 4 stages of education in Australia

The Australian school system overview:

  • Primary school: seven or eight years, starting with kindergarten/ preparatory / preschool
  • Secondary school: four years from Years 7 or 8 to 10
  • Senior secondary school: two years from Years 11 to 12
  • Tertiary the average degree runs for 3-4 years

Kindergarten / preparatory / preschool

Pre school is the first step into the education system in Australia. Roughly 87% of all children aged 4, and 22% of all children aged 5 participate in preschool programs.

Primary & secondary

Primary and secondary education runs for a total of about 12 years and is compulsory for all children between the ages of 6 and 16.

Tertiary education

Post-secondary education is known as tertiary education. Tertiary education includes higher education and vocational education and training (VET) which are available at university and non-university institutes.

While not compulsory, tertiary education remains a popular pathway into employment for Australian residents. More than 40% of people aged 25-34 years old hold a tertiary qualification.

More than 40% of Australian people aged 25-34 years old hold a tertiary qualification.

National curriculum and assessment

Australia has a National Curriculum for schools to ensure all children receive similar learning outcomes across Australia.

This includes an annual assessment for students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 known as the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN).

NAPLAN tests in four areas:

  • 1 Reading
  • 2 Writing
  • 3 Language Conventions (spelling, grammar and punctuation)
  • 4 Numeracy

Results from NAPLAN show that almost 94 per cent of children meet national minimum standards for their age/stage.

Attendance and participation

In Australia in 2023:

  • 4,086,998 students were enrolled in 9,629 schools
  • The Year 7/8 to 12 full-time apparent retention rate was 79.1%
  • The average student to teaching staff ratio for all schools was 13.1 students to one teacher

People aged 20-24 years:

  • 90% had attained a qualification at year 12 or certificate III level or above
  • 93% of women held qualifications at this level, compared with 87% of men
  • 87% or above in all states and territories held qualifications at this level

94 percent of children meet national minimum standards for their age/stage.

Public vs private education

Compared to other countries, the Australian education system is highly privatised.

Of the 4 million+ students enrolled in schools across Australia, just 64% are enrolled in government schools with the remaining in catholic schools (19.7%) and independent schools (16.3%).

However, tertiary education paints a slightly different picture - according to the most recent data, the majority of higher education enrolments (93%) are enrolled in public universities.

Primary and secondary school fees

Tuition fees cost parents anywhere between $158 per year for public primary school to $12,860 per year for independent secondary schools - costs vary between State and Territories.

ACT holds the title as most expensive state for private primary schools. The average school tuition cost here is $8,511 per student, per year.

New South Wales has the most expensive private secondary schools with an average annual tuition cost of $12,860. That's $3,500 more than the average cost in Victoria.

When it comes to government education, South Australia has the highest cost. Schools here ask for an average voluntary contribution of $440 per year for primary levels and $978 for secondary students.

University fees

Tuition fees and the cost of studying in Australia will vary depending on:

  • The education provider
  • The level of study
  • The study location in Australia

Study Australia lists the average costs as follows:

Education Type Average Tuition
English language course $300 per week
Vocational Education and Training $4,000 - $22,000 per year
Foundation courses $15,000 - $33,000 total
Bachelor Degree $15,000 - $33,000 per year
Master's Degree $14,000 - $37,000 per year
Doctoral Degree $14,000 - $37,000 per year
MBA $11,000 - $121,000 per year

The Australian academic year

One of the most notable differences between the education system in Australia and those in the northern hemisphere is the academic year.

Schools

Schools start in late January / early February (depending on the state or territory) and end in December, for the summer break.

Generally speaking there are four terms, three that have a 2 - 3 week break between the first three terms, ending the year with a 6 week break over Christmas and New Year.

Attendance at school is Monday through to Friday each week with typical school hours running between 8:30am and 3:30pm.

University / VET

The university teaching year is split into three semesters:

  • Semester 1 - February to June
  • Semester 2 - July to November, and
  • Summer Semester - December to February

The Summer semester is usually optional.

The best primary school in Australia is Sydney Grammar School in Darlinghurst while the best secondary school is James Ruse Agricultural High School in Carlingford.

The best schools in Australia

There are close to 10,000 schools in Australia including a mix of private and public primary and secondary schools.

The best primary school in the country according to Better Education is Sydney Grammar School in Darlinghurst while the best secondary school is James Ruse Agricultural High School in Carlingford.

The schools in the study are rated based upon Maths, English and overall academic performance.

Best primary schools in Australia

School Location Sector
Sydney Grammar School Darlinghurst Non-government
Northcross Christian School Ryde, NSW Non-government
Presbyterian Ladies College Burwood, VIC Non-government
Abbotsleigh Wahroonga, NSW Non-government
Arden Anglican School Beecroft, NSW Non-government
St Aloysius’ College Milsons Point, NSW Non-government
Al-Faisal College Minto, NSW Non-government
St Andrews Christian College Wantirna South, VIC Non-government
Huntingtower School Mount Waverley, VIC Non-government

Best secondary schools in Australia

School Location Sector
James Ruse Agricultural High School Carlingford Government
Baulkham Hills High School Baulkham Hills, NSW Government
North Sydney Boys High School Sydney, NSW Government
North Sydney Girls High School Sydney, NSW Government
Sydney Boys High School Sydney, NSW Government
Sydney Girls High School Sydney, NSW Government
Hornsby Girls High School Hornsby, NSW Government
Normanhurst Boys High School Normanhurst, NSW Government
Girraween High School Girraween, NSW Government
Perth Modern School Perth, WA Government

Best universities in Australia

Australia is home to over 40 universities, many of which are recognised globally for their courses, facilities, research and the subsequent opportunities they present to students. There are a number of different factors to consider when deciding which university is best for you. We’ve outlined the top universities in Australia based on the following categories: best all round university, most sustainable university, top university for climate action.

Best all-round university globally

The best university in Australia overall is the University of Melbourne according to the Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings 2024 (THE). The study looked at the teaching, research environment, research quality , industry, and international outlook at 1,906 universities across 108 countries. The below table shows Australian universities that were ranked in the study along with their global rankings.

Australian Ranking Global ranking University City State/ territory
1 37 University of Melbourne Melbourne Victoria
2 54 Monash University Melbourne Victoria
3 60 University of Sydney Sydney NSW
4 67 Australian National University Canberra ACT
5 70 The University of Queensland Brisbane QLD
6 84 UNSW Sydney Kensington NSW
7 111 University of Adelaide Adelaide SA
8 143 The University of Western Australia Perth WA
9 148 University of Technology Sydney Sydney NSW
10 180 Macquarie University Sydney NSW

Most sustainable university globally

Interestingly, in a separate study assessing universities against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Western Sydney University ranked in first place globally.

The study compared 1,705 universities from 115 countries and regions. It looked at four broad areas including: research, stewardship, outreach and teaching.

The below table shows Australian universities that were ranked in the study along with their global rankings.

Australian Ranking Global ranking University City State/ territory
1 1 Western Sydney University Melbourne Victoria
2 5 University of Tasmania Tasmania TAS
3 7 RMIT University Melbourne Victoria
4 12 University of Technology Sydney Sydney NSW
5 18 UNSW Sydney Sydney NSW
6 21 Monash University Melbourne Victoria
7 28 University of Newcastle Newcastle NSW
8 29 University of the Sunshine Coast Sunshine Coast QLD
9 39 Macquarie University Sydney NSW
10 57 La Trobe University Melbourne Victoria

Top university for climate action

When it comes to climate action it seems Australian Universities take the two top spots globally with University of Tasmania, UNSW Sydney and University of Victoria all receiving recognition in the Top universities for climate action 2023 study.

The below table shows the top 10 Australian universities that were ranked in the study along with their global rankings.

Australian Ranking Global ranking University City State/ territory
1 1 University of Tasmania Tasmania TAS
2 2 UNSW Sydney Sydney NSW
3 7 Western Sydney University Sydney NSW
4 12 University of Newcastle Newcastle NSW
5 13 Macquarie University Sydney NSW
6 17 RMIT University Melbourne Victoria
7 19 Australian National University Canberra ACT
8 26 University of Technology Sydney Sydney NSW
9 28 University of the Sunshine Coast Sunshine Coast QLD
10 41 University of Wollongong Wollongong NSW

Most popular tertiary courses in Australia

There are thousands of tertiary courses for students to choose from in Australia but a few disciplines stand out when it comes to overall popularity.

In a recent study analysing data from students enrolled in tertiary courses, the most popular tertiary courses were in the fields of:

  • Society and culture (21%)
  • Management and commerce (17%)
  • Health (16%)
  • Engineering and related technologies (11%)

The study also found that female students were more likely to study in the field of society and culture, and health while male students were more likely to study engineering and related technologies.

Australian Education Fast Facts

Australia is ranked:

  • 2nd in the OECD for education and educational outcomes
  • 7th for spending on education
  • 3rd in the world for the proportion of the population with a tertiary education
  • 3rd in the world as an education destination
  • ninth in the world for reading and science (15 year olds)
  • 10th in the world for maths (15 year olds)

Australia also has:

  • 5 universities in the world’s top 50
  • 3 universities in the top 100 for artificial intelligence

Education in Australia FAQs

What is tertiary education in Australia?

Tertiary education is also known as higher education, third-level education or post-secondary education. It is simply a level of learning that follows the completion of secondary school. Tertiary education is delivered in universities, TAFE’s, Registered training organisations and colleges.

Is education free in Australia?

There are public primary and secondary schools that are free to attend. However private schools, universities, colleges and pre-schools are generally fee-paying.

What is secondary education in Australia?

Secondary school runs for 6 years on completion of primary education. It is compulsory until the age of 16 and covers a range of subjects in accordance with a national curriculum. Subjects include maths, science, history, languages, health, music, art and more.

What is the year 12 age in Australia?

The age of Year 12 students or ‘senior year’ students will ary on a number of factors including: the age they began their education, whether they repeated years, and the cut off of their birth date. Typically a graduating student in Year 12 will be 17 or 18 years old.

How many schools in Australia?

There are close to 10,000 schools in Australia.

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