Higher education is a popular option for students who have completed year 12, and for some mature age people who are looking for further study. Australia’s higher education system is made up of universities and other institutions which offer undergraduate degrees and higher qualifications.
Higher education is the pathway to a range of jobs, including the most highly skilled Professional occupations. Around three quarters of Professionals hold a bachelor degree or higher qualification and many Professional jobs can only be done by people who have a relevant qualification at the bachelor degree or higher level. Higher education qualifications are often required for jobs in Education and Training and Health Care and Social Assistance.
Higher education enrolments have increased strongly over the past decade (up by 45%), and in 2016 there were more than 1.06 million domestic students enrolled in higher education.
Who can study through the higher education system?
People of all ages and genders can study through the higher education system, although there is usually an academic entry requirement. As courses are available for full-time and part-time study, as well as online, students across the country are able to access higher education. Higher education usually involves a commitment to at least three years of full-time equivalent study to attain a bachelor degree, but many courses involve longer periods of education.
Young people make up a large proportion of higher education students.
- 61% were aged 24 years or younger in 2016.
- 27% were aged 25 to 39 years.
- 12% were aged 40 years or older.
In 2016, females accounted for 58% of higher education students.
What subject areas are offered?
The higher education sector provides training in all fields of education, but the largest numbers of enrolments are in Society and Culture (282,900 enrolments in 2016), which is a diverse field of education including studies in law, psychology, human welfare and society, language and linguistics, economics and sport and recreation. The largest enrolment growth has been in Health, which has doubled over the past decade to 206,100 in 2016.
Higher education enrolments, by field of education
|2016 enrolments||10 year change|
|Society and Culture||282.9||86.5||44|
|Management and Commerce||190.1||30.2||19|
|Natural and Physical Sciences||99.1||34.5||53|
|Engineering and Related Technologies||67.7||20.4||43|
|Architecture and Building||24.4||7.2||42|
|Agriculture, Environmental and Related Studies||14.3||-0.7||-5|
|All fields of education1||1065.7||332.7||45|
1. Total includes some mixed field and non-award courses
What level of qualifications are offered?
Universities offer courses at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, including associate degrees, bachelor degrees, masters and PhD qualifications. The vast majority of students study at the bachelor degree level (74% in 2016).
Higher education graduate employment outcomes
While higher level qualifications ultimately improve employment prospects, employment outcomes for students immediately after graduation have weakened over the past decade. There have, however, been recent signs of improvement (see chart below). In 2017, 71.8% of bachelor degree graduates (available for full-time work) found full-time employment four months after graduation.
Postgraduate studies can improve employment outcomes. In 2017, 86.1% of postgraduate coursework and 80.4% of postgraduate research graduates were employed full-time four months after graduation.
Graduate employment outcomes vary depending on the area of study. Vocationally oriented study areas (such as Medicine, Rehabilitation, Pharmacy, Dentistry and Teacher Education) generally have stronger employment outcomes immediately after graduation. Almost all Medicine and Pharmacy graduates find full-time employment after graduation, reflecting the internship requirements.
Graduates with more generalist degrees (such as Creative Arts, and Science and Mathematics) have weaker employment outcomes immediately after graduation, as these graduates can take longer to find their first job. Longitudinal studies, however, show that employment outcomes for graduates with more generalist degrees improve significantly over time.
Bachelor degree graduates employed 4 months after graduation, selected fields of education, 2017 (%)
*Full-time employment is a proportion of those available for full-time employment. Part-time employment is a proportion of those available for any employment.
Higher education graduate salaries
In 2017, the median annual full-time starting salary was $60,000. Postgraduate coursework graduates had a median starting salary of $81,000 and for postgraduate research graduates it was $87,800.
The highest bachelor degree graduate salaries by area of study were
- Dentistry ($78,300)
- Medicine ($70,300)
- Engineering ($64,000).
Sources: Department of Education and Training, Higher Education Statistics; QILT, Graduate Outcomes Survey; ABS, Census of Population and Housing
This bar chart shows the proportion of bachelor degree graduates employed full-time or part-time 4 months after graduation by selected fields of education. Medicine 95.9% employed full-time 0% employed part-time. Rehabilitation 85.7% employed full-time 10.1% employed part-time. Pharmacy 95.2% employed full-time 0.6% employed part-time. Dentistry 86.8% employed full-time 8.9% employed part-time. Teacher Education 81.7% employed full-time 11.3% employed part-time. Nursing 79.3% employed full-time 12.4% employed part-time. Health Services and Support 72.7% employed full-time 17.2% employed part-time. Veterinary Science 81.4% employed full-time 6.1% employed part-time. Business and Management 76.5% employed full-time 10.7% employed part-time. Engineering 79.4% employed full-time 7.1% employed part-time. Law and Paralegal Studies 74.8% employed full-time 10.5% employed part-time. Psychology 60.3% employed full-time 24.5% employed part-time. Communications 60.6% employed full-time 24.0% employed part-time. Computing and Information Systems 73.3% employed full-time 8.8% employed part-time. Science and Mathematics 59.0% employed full-time 21.6% employed part-time. Creative Arts 53.2% employed full-time 26.8% employed part-time.