How does the education system work in Australia?

Australia is renowned for offering excellent education at all stages of a student’s experience, from pre-school to primary school, tertiary education and postgraduate accreditations. So how does it work?

School students studying in Adelaide, Australia
Last Updated Wednesday 13th March, 2024

The Australian Qualifications Framework

Every course, program and degree in Australia is underpinned by the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) – a national policy that covers qualifications across all sectors. The framework emphasises flexible learning and provides pathways between education sectors and beyond into the workforce.

There are 10 levels in the AQF – with each level referring to the complexity, breadth and depth of learning outcomes. Each AQF level has qualification types such as Bachelor Degree or Master’s Degree which you can see in the diagram below:

AQF Level Qualification(s)
1 Certificate I
2 Certificate II
3 Certificate III
4 Certificate IV
5 Diploma
6 Advanced Diploma
Associate Degree
7 Bachelor Degree
8 Bachelor Honours Degree
Graduate Certificate
Graduate Diploma
9 Masters Degree
10 Doctoral Degree

The Australian Qualifications Framework means that regardless of whether you choose to study in Sydney, Melbourne or Adelaide, the qualification you receive is based on the same set of national standards regardless of the city you choose.

The Australian education structure

The Australian education system is broken down into five distinct tiers:

  1. Reception/Primary School (years R-6/7)
  2. Secondary School (years 7/8-10)
  3. Senior Secondary School (years 11 and 12)
  4. Tertiary Education
  5. Post university accreditation

Primary education

Primary education in Australia runs for 7 to 8 years and begins at the preparatory or reception level. Students usually enter into the national education system at ages 4 or 5. Add additional content in here – exploring learning concepts, skills to be developed during primary years, support from teachers etc.

Secondary education

Secondary school education in Australia is compulsory until year 10 or age 16, however to move onto higher education students must complete year 12 to receive their certificate. 

There are however some key differences between secondary education at both the middle and senior levels. 

During middle secondary school students’ choices are limited and a standard curriculum is delivered. 

In senior school there is a greater choice of subjects available and students are encouraged to make their own decisions about what to study. Students work with teachers and counsellors to decide on subjects that match their strengths and possible career or tertiary study path.

Types of schools

The Australian education system generally consists of public and independent education, and both options should be explored so that you can make the right choice for you and your family.

Public schools in Australia are mainly funded by governments (such as SA Government Schools), which are funded on a per-student basis, with the full cost of a student’s education being subsidised. As a result, public education is a more accessible and affordable option for many families.

Alternatively, independent education is mostly funded through donations and tuition fees, as well as a smaller per-student contributions from government.

Whether a school is public or private does not mean that the quality of education or the teachers will be better or worse. It’s important to do your research and decide what is important to you, and what is best for your family.

Tertiary education

Australia has world-class higher education facilities, with both established and institutions to choose from. Adelaide has three local public universities, each of which are unique in their own way so doing some research can help you choose which one is right for you.

The Australian university system is directly tied to secondary school through a year 12 completion certificate and an ATAR.  Most universities and courses do not require students to sit an entrance exam, however there may be exceptions for subjects such as law or medicine. Instead the ATAR system is balanced with demand to determine what score is required of students to study their chosen degree.

Domestic Australian students and international senior secondary students receive an ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank) score at the completion of Year 12. This means international students that choose to study high school in Australia, are assessed for university entrance exactly the same as domestic students. Universities in Australia do not require students to undertake an entrance exam. Instead, students are assessed for entry into the course they want based on their ATAR score. The required score for a course is dependent on the amount of demand for that course and the number of places the university has for it. The higher the demand for a course, the higher the required ATAR.

For students that don’t quite meet the required entry score for a course, there are other alternatives. 

Foundation studies or bridging programs are another pathway into university. These intensive courses help bring students up to the required level for university. Foundation courses or pathway programs as they are commonly known, are a really great way to transition into university as they better prepare students for the self-discipline of university studies.
In most cases pathway programs also count towards your university degree, so they don’t impact the length of time you have to study to achieve a degree.

Post-Graduate and post-study accreditation

Once you have competed your tertiary education it is worth keeping in mind some of your options for further accreditation. You may consider undertaking an Masters in Business Administration (MBA), which are offered both online and on-campus. This further accreditation can help further your career and all three of Adelaide’s universities offer MBAs.

If you have studied accounting at an Australian university you may choose to further your study afterwards to become a Chartered Accountant (CA). A CA can be studied entirely externally, and is designed to be completed while working full-time. 

Becoming a Chartered Accountant can open up new doors and opportunities for you in the world of accounting and finance, and your qualifications are recognised internationally. 

For further post-study accreditation talk to your chosen education institution.

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