Prepared by Recognition and Quality Unit, Higher Education Division,
Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Australia

Australia’s Higher Education System


There are 43 higher education institutions in Australia, 38 of which receive Commonwealth funding. Another two institutions receive Commonwealth funding on a contract basis. In addition to these institutions, there are two private universities as well as a range of privately funded institutions offering higher education courses. The Federal Government does not have Constitutional power over higher education except in the case of the Australian National University and the Australian Maritime College which were established under legislation of the Federal Parliament. The Federal Government’s role in higher education policy and administration flows from its responsibility for funding public higher education institutions, and for national policies and priorities.

Higher education is administered at the Federal level through the Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs (DETYA). DETYA has responsibility for the Federal Government’s higher education policy development and programme administration. The Federal Government regards higher education as contributing to the attainment of individual freedom, the advancement of knowledge and social progress. The objectives for its policies are to expand opportunity, assure quality, improve universities’ responsiveness to varying student needs and industry requirements, advance the knowledge base and university contributions to national innovation, and ensure public accountability for the cost-effective use of public resources.

State and Territory Governments have responsibility for approving new applications from institutions wishing to operate as universities within their State or Territory, and proposals from non-university providers wishing to offer higher education programmes. The process of consideration of applications involves peer review by experienced senior academic staff of universities and others as appropriate, to ensure that standards are comparable to those of existing public universities. Once an institution is accredited as a university it is listed on the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF)[2] Register of Authorities empowered by Government to Accredit Post-Compulsory Education and Training Courses and Register of Bodies with Authority to Issue Qualifications. The State and Territory higher education accreditation authorities are also listed on the AQF Registers. Most States and Territories operate similar procedures for accreditation, and require courses to meet similar criteria, including meeting the relevant AQF descriptors for the award to be offered. The Federal Government and all the States and Territories have legislation to protect the use of the term ‘university’.

Higher Education Institutions

The Australian higher education sector consists of universities and non-university institutions.

Universities are autonomous, self-accrediting higher education institutions. Their establishing legislation vests responsibility for governance and management in a governing body in the form of a council or senate which is accountable to the Federal, State or Territory government. The governing bodies usually have around 18 to 25 members composed of the Chancellor, senior academics – the Vice-Chancellor, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, and Chair of the Academic Board – as well as external members, government appointees and staff and student representatives. The legislation also provides for the establishment of a Vice-Chancellor as the chief executive officer.

Australian universities are generally comprehensive institutions offering a wide range of programmes. They vary significantly in size ranging from the largest with around 40,000 students down to the smallest at around 2,000 students. Most range between 10,000 to 20,000 students. Many universities are located in the major cities but there is a significant number located in smaller regional centres. The larger universities usually have a number of campuses.

Most universities are organised on the basis of faculties or schools but may also have a number of specialised and/or research centres or institutes. Many have residential colleges which have no responsibility for teaching but may provide additional tutoring.

Programmes and degrees offered by non-university institutions often have an applied focus and are most commonly in fields such as art, business, drama, hospitality, music, religion and theology, and teacher education. A few non-university institutions are self-accrediting but most are not. In the case of institutions which are not self-accrediting, their higher education programmes and awards are accredited by the relevant State or Territory higher education accreditation authority. This is usually referred to as external accreditation. Higher education programmes and awards accredited in this way must be accredited within the State or Territory in which they are offered as accreditation in the higher education sector is not nationally-based. In some cases awards undertaken at institutions which are not self-accrediting may be offered in conjunction with a university.

In 1999, some 686,200 students were enrolled in undergraduate and postgraduate higher education courses at publicly funded universities. Australian higher education institutions attract large numbers of foreign students, with 84,100 overseas students enrolled in 1999.

Awards and Programmes

Traditionally, higher education institutions in Australia have offered a wide range of programmes in academic and professional education. Professional in Australia refers to degree level awards qualifying the holder to practice in a profession such as architecture, dentistry, engineering, law, medicine, social work and veterinary science. More recently, many universities have added a range of more applied or vocational programmes in fields such as business, management, design, hospitality and tourism. These may also be referred to as professional programmes, ie occupationally oriented programmes. Universities do not necessarily offer programmes in all disciplines. For example, there are only ten medical faculties in Australia, seven faculties of pharmacy, five of dentistry and four of veterinary science. Non-university higher education institutions tend to offer a narrower range of studies, in some cases offering programmes in only one or two fields of study.

Higher education institutions offer qualifications under the AQF. The academic degrees offered are Bachelor degrees, Master degrees and Doctoral degrees. Higher education institutions also offer Diplomas, Advanced Diplomas, Graduate Certificates and Graduate Diplomas. Most programmes are available in full-time or part-time mode. Delivery of programmes through distance education and on-line through the internet has grown rapidly in recent years. In some cases, programmes may be provided outside Australia.

The AQF Diploma is a para-professional qualification for those working as technical officers, supervisors, or associates working with professionals, depending on the occupation or field. In many cases, Diplomas articulate to Advanced Diploma awards. Alternatively, Diplomas can provide advanced standing or credit transfer into a specified Bachelor degree programme at a university. One year of advanced standing is the most common although some provide more. Only a very small number of Diplomas are offered as higher education awards. They are usually terminal awards with an applied focus, providing general or specialised training for employment at the para-professional level. Entry requirements vary depending on the purpose and nature of the programme. Most Diplomas require one year of full-time study or part-time equivalent although a few require two years.

The AQF Advanced Diploma is a professional-level qualification for those working as technologists or managers or professionals depending on the occupation or field. Only a few are offered as higher education awards. An Advanced Diploma usually comprises units from a bachelor degree programme, providing an early exit point with a stand alone qualification but with the option of continuing to the Bachelor degree. Entry is usually based on normal university admission requirements (see below), and most Advanced Diplomas required two years of full-time study.

The Bachelor degree is an academic or professional level qualification. It indicates the acquisition of a systemic and coherent body of knowledge, the underlying principles and concepts, and the associated problem-solving techniques. It involves the development of the academic skills and attitudes necessary to comprehend and evaluate new information, concepts and evidence from a range of sources. It also involves the development of the ability to review, consolidate, extend and apply the knowledge and techniques acquired.

The Master degree is a postgraduate qualification. A master degree may involve the enhancement of specific professional or vocational skills through directed coursework and/or research. Alternatively, a Master degree may indicate the acquisition of in-depth understanding in a specific area of knowledge through research.

Doctoral degrees are the highest level of postgraduate study. They usually involve a searching review of literature, experimentation or other systematic approach to the relevant body of knowledge. An original research project is undertaken resulting in a significant contribution to knowledge and understanding and/or the application of knowledge within a discipline or field of study. A substantial and well ordered thesis is prepared, demonstrating the relationship of the research to the broader framework of the discipline or field of study.

Graduate Certificates and Diplomas are postgraduate qualifications below the level of Master degrees. They can involve the broadening of skills already gained in an undergraduate programme or developing vocational knowledge and skills in a new professional area. The Graduate Diploma may also provide further specialisation within a systematic and coherent body of knowledge.

Admission to Higher Education

Admission to higher education for school leavers is normally based on completion of full secondary education, ie Year 12. There is a keen demand for places and quotas apply for most programmes. Entry is normally determined by the student’s tertiary entrance score, rank or index. Tertiary admissions centres in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia coordinate admission for those States. New South Wales also coordinates admissions to institutions in the Australian Capital Territory. The University of Tasmania and the Northern Territory University manage their own admissions.

The method of calculation of the tertiary entrance score, rank or index varies between States and Territories but students can use their tertiary entrance rank, score or index from their home State or Territory to apply for admission elsewhere in Australia. It is becoming increasingly common for students to do so. In some cases, entry for school leavers may be based on additional requirements such as an interview, portfolio of work, and/or a demonstrated interest or aptitude for the study programme.

Most institutions make special provision for the admission of mature-age students. Such applicants for admission to regular programmes are usually required to have completed Year 12, but are sometimes admitted without this prerequisite if they meet other criteria such as work experience in the area they wish to study, an entrance examination, or a demonstrated aptitude for study. There are also special admission schemes or arrangements for other identified groups, such as indigenous people. Some universities that offer programmes by distance education have flexible admissions policies.

Quality Assurance Framework

During the 1990s, the higher education sector in Australia experienced substantial structural reorganisation and rapid growth in student enrolments. A number of measures and initiatives were implemented to ensure that the quality of higher education in Australia was of an appropriately high standard and that it was maintained and enhanced. The Federal Government, in conjunction with State and Territory Governments, has recently developed several initiatives to improve the Australian accreditation and quality assurance framework to promote international best practice in higher education quality assurance.

The new quality assurance framework consists of:

The establishment of universities under State and Territory legislation followed by self-accreditation;
Internal mechanisms of self-accrediting universities for ensuring their own academic standards and quality assurance processes;
Accreditation of courses of non-self-accrediting higher education providers through State and Territory accreditation authorities;
The Australian Qualifications Framework which lists accredited institutions, accrediting authorities and provides award descriptors;
Federal Government mechanisms which include funding, performance data and performance management tools;
National protocols for Higher Education Approval Processes which provide national consistency; and
The Australian Universities Quality Agency which will audit universities and State and Territory accreditation authorities.

The new quality assurance framework is the subject of a separate paper to be discussed later in seminar.

Recognition Mechanisms

National Mechanisms

The development of the AQF (as well as a recognition framework for the vocational education and training sector), the recognition of the importance of lifelong learning as a continuous process throughout an individual’s working life, and the increased mobility of students between education sectors and between education systems either within Australia or from outside Australia, has seen the development of credit transfer and advanced standing in Australia.

Credit transfer refers to the agreed value of a formal qualification or part of a qualification providing an exemption from undertaking a component or components of a subsequent or destination qualification. It indicates a connection or linkage between recognised qualifications and does not refer to other forms of achievement such as work or life experience. In Australia there is no national process for determining credit transfer, and credit transfer is usually negotiated between or within institutions on a course by course basis. The arrangements vary but are usually very specific. They depend on such factors as the level, focus and orientation of the previous studies, content overlap, and the equivalence between individual modules, competencies or subjects.

Other variations of credit transfer include credit for part of a programme in a related field but at the same level. Credit transfer also occurs where a qualification is embedded within another qualification. Less often, credit may be given for components of a Bachelor degree in an AQF programme. In some cases institutions may publish or formally indicate the credit transfer arrangements in place.

Advanced standing is generally defined as waiving the obligation to undertake a part or parts of a qualification on the basis of recognising the value of prior learning and/or uncredentialled achievement but not in the form of credits from one qualification to another. Prior learning can include achievements through work experience and less formal study or learning. This may be formally negotiated between institutions for specific courses and qualifications or be negotiated on a case by case basis. In some cases students with qualifications from outside Australia can gain advanced standing in Australian courses or programmes. The granting of advanced standing or recognition of prior learning is always at the discretion of the admitting institution.

Articulation refers to the connections such as credit transfer or advanced standing between qualifications or programmes. Articulation usually involves a clearly defined sequential pathway that links two qualifications together to create an integrated structure. Articulation may include nested awards, dual awards and joint awards. Articulation arrangements in Australia are established both within and across relevant fields of specialisation or education sectors and provide a variety of education, training and work-based pathways. Articulation arrangements are often published as part of the course material.

International Mechanisms

The internationalisation of education and increasing international mobility of professionals call for international efforts to promote qualifications recognition. Australia has been active in seeking to improve arrangements for the recognition of both educational and professional qualifications by establishing bilateral relationships and through multilateral fora. In seeking to promote recognition of qualifications for educational purposes, in recent years Australia has signed bilateral memoranda of understanding with Germany, France, Italy, Malaysia and Thailand. The agreements with Malaysia, Italy and Germany include recommendations to awarding institutions regarding an appropriate level of recognition of qualifications. Memoranda of understanding signed with France and Thailand provide for work towards a broad framework for cooperation on the mutual recognition of educational awards issued by institutions from both countries.

Multilaterally, Australia accepted the Regional Convention on the Recognition of Studies, Diplomas and Degrees in Higher Education in Asia and the Pacific in 1985 and recently accepted the role of president of the Convention’s Regional Committee. Australia is also a party to the 1979 Convention on the Recognition of Studies, Diplomas and Degrees Concerning Higher Education in the States belonging to the European Region and recently signed and will shortly ratify the Lisbon Recognition Convention. For Australia the Asia-Pacific and European conventions and their associated fora represent very useful means to promote cooperation on academic recognition and mobility.

Australia has also been engaged in recent years in projects aimed at improved international arrangements for mutual professional recognition. Apart from tangible outcomes such as identifying barriers to recognition of qualifications and the signing of some memoranda of understanding, these initiatives also provided opportunities for the exchange of views on criteria and procedures for the recognition of higher education qualifications. These initiatives, while on the one hand facilitating trade in professional services by reducing barriers to the recognition of qualifications, are also valuable in establishing synergies with the internationalisation of education systems.

The most significant project in the area of improved regional arrangements for professional recognition is the APEC Engineer project - an initiative of DETYA and the Institution of Engineers, Australia (IEAust), developed under the auspices of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Human Resources Development Working Group (HRDWG). Participation included professional, regulatory and licensing bodies, and government officials, from the following APEC economies: Australia, Canada, China, Hong Kong China, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, Paua New Guinea, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, the United States and Viet Nam.

This project developed a mechanism to facilitate mobility for professional engineers in the region by reducing barriers to the recognition of engineering qualifications. The APEC Engineer is founded on two frameworks: the Substantial Equivalence Framework and the Mutual Exemption Framework. The Substantial Equivalence Framework sets the criteria against which applicants are assessed for status as an APEC Engineer. The Substantial Equivalence criteria are:

o Completion of an accredited or recognised engineering program,

o Eligibility for independent practice within home jurisdiction,

o Completion of a minimum of seven years practical experience since graduation,

o Completion of at least two years in responsible charge of significant engineering work, and

o Continuing professional development at a satisfactory level.

Candidates assessed as meeting these criteria will be identified on APEC Engineer Registers maintained by their home economy and available to regulatory and licensing authorities in other economies via the internet. For engineers on the Registers, the Mutual Exemption Framework provides for partial or total exemption from registration or licensing requirements in another participating economy.

At the time of this report, seven member economies have been authorised to operate APEC Engineer Registers: Australia, Canada, Hong Kong China, Japan, Korea, Malaysia and New Zealand. It is expected that Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, the United States and Viet Nam will be authorised to operate APEC Engineer Registers in the next year.

In addition, in recent years DETYA encouraged Australian professional bodies in six occupations (accounting, architecture, engineering, law, nursing and surveying) to develop a better understanding of the structure, organisation and regulatory arrangements of their counterparts in the region, with a particular focus on ASEAN countries. This activity was useful as it documented current recognition practices in the region and identified barriers to mutual recognition of qualifications as well as opportunities for possible agreements.

A project to promote mobility for professional architects, known as the APEC Architect, is due to commence in the first half of 2001.

Fees and Charges

Higher education students in Australia are subject to a range of fees and charges. In addition to the fees and charges described below, institutions sometimes make an additional charge to cover other costs associated with being a student such as student organisation membership, library and laboratory costs, and sports facility costs. Some courses make specific charges for excursions, books, stationary and other essential materials.

The Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) was introduced by the Federal Government in 1989 in order to recover from students some of the cost of higher education studies. HECS represents about 35 per cent of average tuition costs.

Students may either pay HECS each semester with a 25 per cent discount, or defer payment of HECS until their personal income exceeds the minimum threshold for repayments - $21,984 for income year 1999-2000. Since 1998 students who make a partial payment of at least $500 of their HECS liability up-front are also eligible for a discount. Since 1997 HECS contributions have been differentiated according to three bands based on units of study. In 2000 the annual HECS contributions for each band are:

Arts, humanities, legal studies and justice, social studies, behavioural science, visual and performing arts, education, nursing - $3,463;
Mathematics, computing, other health sciences, agriculture and renewable resources, built environment and architecture, science, engineering and processing, administration, business and economics - $4,932;
Law, medicine, medical science, dentistry, dental services, veterinary science - $5,772.

The HECS contribution applies to Australian citizens, Australian permanent residents and New Zealand citizens enrolled in a higher education course which has been funded by the Federal Government. Since 1996 all New Zealand students and some permanent residents have been required to pay their HECS contribution up front without a discount. Exemptions from paying HECS are available for those who are charged tuition fees by their institution, overseas students, holders of Merit-Based Equity Scholarships, and postgraduate students with a Research HECS Exemption. Students are also exempt from HECS if they are enrolled in non-award courses, enabling courses for disadvantaged students, courses fully funded by an employer, and courses at some colleges not funded by the Federal Government.

Other Fees

Tuition fees - Legislation regarding the ability of universities to charge fees has been progressively liberalised since the mid 1980s. In 1985 institutions began to charge fees for overseas students. This was expanded to include some postgraduate in 1988. Since 1998 universities have also been able to offer some undergraduate places on a fee-paying basis subject to provisions of the Federal Government. Private higher education institutions set their own fees.

Undergraduate fees - In 1996 legislation was amended to allow universities to offer undergraduate places to domestic students on a fee-paying basis from 1998. Under this legislation universities are not permitted to substitute fee-paying places for HECS-liable places. The Federal Government sets the provisions for the number of fee-paying places universities may offer. Award courses which lead to provisional registration as a medical practitioner by Federal, State or Territory authorities may not offer fee-paying places to domestic students.

Postgraduate Fees - Institutions offer both HECS-liable and full-fee paying places for postgraduate students. Fees for postgraduate students were introduced in the late 1980s, with universities only able to charge fees for a limited range of courses designed to upgrade the vocational skills and qualifications of people already employed. Since 1994 institutions have been able to offer fee-paying postgraduate places for both coursework and research postgraduate degrees, with no regulation of the level of fees charged.

HECS-liable students and those who receive Australian Postgraduate Awards are exempted from paying tuition fees. Also, fees cannot be charged for postgraduate award courses required for initial registration for general nursing or providing initial teacher education or which would allow provisional registration as a medical practitioner by Federal, State or Territory authorities.

Fees for students from Outside Australia – Students coming from outside Australia to study at Australian institutions are usually referred to as overseas students. The Federal Government introduced a full-fee programme for overseas students in 1985, alongside the existing programme for partly subsidised overseas students. Since January 1990, all new overseas students have been charged full tuition. The only exemptions are students sponsored under a foreign aid programme or who hold scholarships such as an International Postgraduate Research Scholarship (IPRS) award, Australian-European Awards Programme award, Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan award, or who are subsidised overseas students required to pay under the Overseas Student Charge arrangements.

National Office of Overseas Skills Recognition

The National Office of Overseas Skills Recognition (NOOSR), set up in 1989 within the Commonwealth Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs, to facilitate the development of a national framework to ensure appropriate recognition of overseas qualifications in equitable, open and transparent processes.

NOOSR’s functions include:

· promotion of transparent and equitable procedures and criteria for the assessment of qualifications, for both academic and professional purposes, in line with the Convention’s obligations. This includes the development of protocols and codes of good practice for the assessment and recognition of higher education qualifications,

· providing assessments of overseas educational qualifications which establish the educational level of those qualifications in Australian terms,

· collecting, developing and disseminating information on education systems, Australian and overseas, in conjunction with other national information centres,

· providing information, advice and assistance in relation to the recognition of overseas qualifications and skills to individuals and organisations.

NOOSR produces information about the Australian education system, including the Country Education Profile - Australia, and has established a web site with information about the Australian eduction system and links to (i) State and Territory education systems and (ii) Australian universities’ web sites.

NOOSR also publishes:
· Country Education Profiles (CEPs) which describe the education systems of over 90 countries and provide a guide to the assessment of their qualifications for general employment purposes, and
· Guiding Principles for the Assessment and Recognition of Overseas Educational Qualifications which assist competent authorities in their assessments. Australia is one of the few countries to have published such extensive assessment guidelines and to have facilitated public access to information on overseas qualifications evaluation criteria and procedures.

The Recognition and Quality Unit includes Australia’s National Office of Overseas Skills Recognition (NOOSR), described below.

The Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) was introduced in 1995 to provide a comprehensive, nationally consistent yet flexible framework for all qualifications in postcompulsory education and training. A copy of The Australian Qualifications Framework Implementation Handbook is available to seminar participants.

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