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Education in Australia: an overview

Australia enjoys a worldwide reputation for academic excellence, offering internationally recognised qualifications with immediate employment and career development opportunities.

Did you know Australia has the third highest number of international students in the world behind only the United Kingdom and the United States despite having a population of only 23 million? This isn’t surprising when you consider Australia has seven of the top 100 universities in the world! In fact, with over 22,000 courses across 1,100 institutions, Australia sits above the likes of Germany, the Netherlands and Japan, ranking eighth in the Universitas 2012 U21 Ranking of National Higher Education Systems.

The education structure

The educational structure in Australia follows a three tier model that includes primary education (primary schools), followed by secondary education (secondary schools/high schools) and tertiary education (universities and/or Vocational Education and Training).

Schools can be classified according to sources of funding and administrative structures. There are three such categories in Australia:

  1. Government schools (also known as public schools or state schools)
  2. Catholic schools
  3. Independent schools (known as private schools).

Public schools in Australia are secular, although they may offer optional religious education. Private schools usually have religious affiliations. Overall, around 64% of children in Australia attend public schools and 34% attend private or Catholic schools. Regardless of your choice of school, all are regulated by the same high standard curriculum framework.

Education in Australia
Age (years)School/GradeBandCompulsory
5-11KindergartenPrimary school*Yes/No
12-187High school

* Primary school is years 1 through 7 in QLD, WA and SA
** Legal leaving age is 16 or 17, depending on the state

Most schools enforce a uniform or dress code, although there are varying expectations. Children mainly bring their own recess and lunch meals to school, while many also offer a canteen with moderately priced food and drinks available.

The school year

The Australian school year runs from January to December, with four school terms. The longest holiday is over the Christmas period (the Australian summer). Most educational institutions close for at least six weeks over the Christmas holidays. There are three other two-week school holidays during the year, in April (Easter), July and October.

What will it cost?

Government/public/state schools

  • Primary school fees: AU$70 – AU$300 per year (voluntary)
  • High school fees: AU$250 – AU$800 per year (voluntary)
  • Variety of open, sports, performing arts, languages or academically selective schools
  • Mainly coeducational, some single sex

Government schools are run by their respective state or territory government. They technically offer free education; however, schools do ask parents to pay a voluntary contribution fee, plus school camps, excursions and extracurricular activities require additional (voluntary) funding.

Government high schools can be either open or selective. Open government schools accept all students from their defined catchments or feeder areas. Selective government schools have wider accepted catchment areas and are considered more prestigious than open schools. They only offer placements to the top performers in the Selective High Schools Test undertaken by students during Year 6.

These schools are intended to provide a more academically stimulating and educationally enriched environment for students who have been offered a placement. Likewise sport, performing art or language high schools offer an enhanced learning environment within these categories.

Catholic schools

  • Primary school fees: AU$2000 to AU$3000 per year
  • High school fees: AU$3000 to AU$6000 per year
  • Mainly single sex, some coeducational
  • Daily mass is conducted and religion taught as a subject; however, Catholicism is not the main focus, hence students of other religions also attend these schools

The Catholic school system receives substantial funding from the federal government as Catholic schools are considered to be a vital education system outside the public sector. Fees are compulsory, with school camps, excursions and extracurricular activities as an additional cost. The higher fees generally afford these schools a higher standard of school and sporting facilities than most government schools.

A Catholic school is a good choice if you are unable to afford a private school education but would like to see your child offered more choices than what some open government schools can offer. However, do research on the schools local to the area in which you are moving to as some public schools have great reputations.

Private schools

  • Primary school fees: AU$2000 to AU$2500 per year
  • High school fees: AU$12,000 and AU$20,000 per year
  • Mainly single sex, some coeducational

Private schools also receive government funding; however, fees charged are much higher than those charged to attend government or Catholic schools. As a result, private schools enjoy a prestigious reputation with academic results, school grounds and facilities, sporting and extra-curricular activity options considered to be amongst the best in the country.

Private schools are competitively priced when compared to schools in Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong. A William M. Mercer survey of tuition fees charged by secondary schools found that Sydney schools were less than one third the cost of equivalent London and Tokyo schools, and more than 60% cheaper than New York schools.

Boarding schools

  • Boarding and education fees: AU$30,000 to AU$40,000 per year
  • Mix of international, rural and interstate students
  • Single sex

There are approximately 170 boarding schools around Australia, which are mainly private schools. Boarding schools in Australia can be termed semi-boarding schools in the way they are part day school and part boarding school. These schools take in day students as well as full time boarders, and in some cases semi-boarders who go home on the weekends.


  • Undergraduate course fees: AU$10,000 to AU$16,500 per year
  • Graduate course fees: AU$11,000 to AU$18,500 per year
  • Course duration ranges from three to four years for undergraduate courses and one or more years for postgraduate courses
  • Main intake in February each year with a second intake in July. Application deadline for February intake is November/December, earlier for more competitive courses

Australia has almost 40 public and Catholic universities through which admission is primarily on the basis of academic achievement. There is also a wide variety of specialist and private universities and colleges. The ratio of international to local students in tertiary education in Australia is the highest in the OECD countries.

Australian universities and colleges have an excellent reputation for quality international education so it’s not surprising there are now more than 2.5 million former international students who have gone on to make a difference after studying in Australia. With five of the 30 best cities in the world for students based on student mix, affordability, quality of life, and employer activity, studying in Australia is about the opportunity to live a unique lifestyle, explore the natural wonders of its oceans and rainforests, enjoy weather like home and the buzz of its cosmopolitan cities.

The most prestigious, wealthiest and oldest universities in Australia are known as the Group of Eight (Go8). They include:

  • Australian National University, Canberra
  • University of Melbourne
  • University of Queensland, Brisbane
  • University of New South Wales
  • University of Sydney
  • Monash University, Melbourne
  • University of Western Australia, Perth
  • University of Adelaide, Adelaide

Most students are Commonwealth supported, which means that they are only required to pay a part of the cost of tuition, called the “student contribution”, while the Commonwealth pays the balance. Students are then able to defer payment of their contribution as a Higher Education Loan Programme (HELP) loan. Australian citizens and (with some limitations) permanent residents are able to obtain interest free loans from the government under the HELP loan programme.

In addition, qualified students may be entitled to Youth Allowance or Austudy payments to assist them financially while they are studying. These support payments are means and assets tested. Further assistance is available in the form of scholarships.

Vocational Education and Training (VET)

  • VET fees and charges: AU$580 to AU$1200 per year
  • Award qualifications up to the level of advanced diploma

In Australia vocational education and training is mostly post secondary and provided through the Vocational Education and Training (VET) system by registered training organisations. This system encompasses both public and private providers in a national training framework.

Technical and Further Education (TAFE) institutions provide a wide range of predominantly vocational tertiary education courses in Australia. Fields covered include hospitality, tourism, construction, engineering, secretarial skills, visual arts, computer programming and community work. TAFE colleges generally award qualifications up to the level of advanced diploma. In many instances TAFE study can be used as partial credit towards bachelor degree-level university programs.

Individual TAFE institutions (usually with many campuses) are known as either colleges or institutes, depending on the state or territory. TAFE colleges are owned, operated and financed by the various state and territory governments. Students who enrol in these undergraduate degree courses at TAFE are required to pay full fees and are not entitled to Commonwealth Government supported student fee loans.

Start your journey to Australia…

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