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The basics
Australia: Applying to University - Must read

The Australian higher education system simplified

Our breakdown of the Australian Higher Education System for international students including qualifications, institutions, structure and academic culture...

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Between application forms, sorting out your visa and embarking on the epic flight across the world, getting organised to study abroad in Australia can be exhausting. Not to mention your apprehension at what kind of academic world awaits you once off the tarmac.


Australia’s higher education sector is comprised of both technical colleges and universities, offering technical, undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications. Institutions must be registered with a government body to offer places to international students.


Thinking of studying abroad in Australia, but don’t know where to start? Let our breakdown of the Australian higher education system help make things clearer.


See a full list of Australian higher education providers



As well as offering undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications, there are a number of institutions offering programmes in vocational education. These institutions are called ‘colleges’ or TAFE: Technical and Further Education, and have different entry requirements to universities. Programmes on offer are typically employment-based or can act as a lead-in to a tertiary degree. Students should pursue individual entry requirements on institution websites.


See a full list of Australian TAFEs and colleges



Term structure

The Australian academic year for universities is split into 2 'sessions'. The year begins end of February/beginning of March with the Autumn session which goes on until mid-term break in April. This can be anything from a few days to 2 weeks long. Mid-year exams occur around June/July for a month. Session 2 begins in July/August with a mid-term break in September/October. The November-December period is comprised of End-of-year exams and the Christmas break.


Download a timetable for the rough term dates for Australian universities, including session beginnings and endings, exam periods and more.


Degree length

Whilst many universities offer degrees that focus on a particular area and vary in length, general bachelor degrees in Australia are 3 years in length, with an option to do a fourth year called ‘Honours.’ Acceptance into honours is based on academic merit, and is comprised of taught coursework and a research-based thesis component. Honours is counted as part of your bachelor degree, and would be listed as part of your qualification title: i.e. Bachelor of Science (Honours). Thesis word length varies across faculty and institution but is generally around the 10,000-15,000-word mark.


Bachelor degrees in more focused study areas may sometimes take longer to complete, and have different options for majoring and minoring. Most universities have online handbooks that students are advised to consult for specific course advice and information.


Master's degrees, either by coursework or research are one-two years in length.


Bachelor degrees

An Australian bachelor degree is typically a three-year study in a general area, within which students choose a specific area to focus on. This specific area is called their ‘major,’ and students will be required to complete a quota of subjects within it in order to be awarded the qualification. In addition, students may also complete a set, lesser quota of subjects in another area to receive a ‘minor’ title. For example, at Flinders University in Adelaide, you can study a bachelor of Creative Arts as your major while also specialising in visual effects, as your minor.


Double Degrees and Concurrent Programmes

Many universities also offer double degree programmes, in which students are able to undertake units from two different degrees at a time. As a result, double degrees are much longer than a standard undergraduate study.


Concurrent study programmes such as diplomas and certificates are also offered by some institutions, and provide students the chance to supplement their main studies with a study in another area. Students must meet credit requirements for both qualifications and so must spread their coursework over a longer period of time.


Students are expected to have researched the course requirements for both programmes, and take initiative in selecting courses with the relevant credit levels to meet both sets of requirements.  


Academic culture

Australian universities expect students to take initiative and are focused on independent learning.  Attending lectures is never mandatory and even tutorials can sometimes be optional: however, it is within your interest to go, and lecturers will expect you to be mature enough to make that decision for yourself. In lab-based and practical units however attendance requirement is much more stringent. 


If you don’t hand in work on time, you’re penalised up to 10% of the grade you otherwise would have got per day. After a set cut-off point, you will automatically fail the unit. Tutors will not chase you up for missing work, but will sometimes give you the option to re-submit the work on a pass-fail basis. Coursework in arts disciplines is generally research based, and assessment will usually centre on a few, long-form pieces of work as opposed to intermittent quizzes and testing.


Plagiarism is considered a serious academic offence whose consequences can range from failing an assessment to expulsion from university. You should be given advice and guidance on how to avoid plagiarism during your course but it is worth researching the referencing process for your course.


Now that you’ve got your head around how the Australian higher education system works, why not start browsing courses in Australia now?


Read more:

'Applying for an Australian student visa'

'Student living costs in Australia'

Study in Australia


'Study in Australia' eBook

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