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Higher education in Australia - statistics & facts

Australia is home to over 40 universities, six of which were placed in the top 100 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for 2021. The top universities in the country have traditionally coincided with the list of oldest Australian universities, known as the “Sandstone Universities”, which includes the University of Sydney, University of Melbourne, and the University of Queensland. However, some of the younger universities, such as Monash university in Melbourne and the Australian National University in Canberra, have earned their place at the top of the ranks. This has led to a different grouping of top Australian universities defined by the eight leading research-intensive universities, which have been labeled the “Group of Eight” (Go8).

Just under 30 percent of Australians hold a bachelor level degree or higher. This proportion of the population with a university education has risen more than three-fold over the last three decades from less than eight percent. The increase in university participation was encouraged by policy decisions in the early 70s, which made university education free to all Australians, although only for around a decade. After 1985, student contributions were reintroduced, with a portion of the cost subsidized by the government. Despite the cost, the number of young people undertaking higher education continues to increase and in 2019 over 40 percent of people aged 20 to 35 held a degree.

Over the years the government subsidy has decreased, and the student contribution has increased, but a university education remains relatively accessible for most Australians due to the Higher Education Loan Program (HELP). HELP gives students the option of delaying their student fees until after they had completed their degree, and presumably entered the workforce. This option is widely accessed and in 2018, close to three million Australians had an outstanding HELP debt.

Australia’s workforce is one of the most educated in the world, around 60 percent of workers have completed some form of tertiary education and just under a third hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. As the labor market becomes increasingly dependent on technical skills, it is expected that a tertiary education will become increasingly necessary for employment. Already industries like education and training, and professional services have highly educated workforces but even industries like mining and manufacturing have an ever-increasing portion of the workforce with a university education. Higher education also, for the most part, translates to higher paid positions. An overwhelming majority of university postgraduates go on to find employment as professionals, with those who complete degrees in medicine, engineering, and teaching likely to be earning upwards of 60,000 Australian dollars a year as a recent graduate.

Australia has become a popular option for students wanting to study overseas and the higher education industry has come to rely on this ever-increasing education export market. International students make up more that 40 percent of enrollments at many of Australia’s leading universities, with Chinese students representing the largest portion of the international student population. In 2019, Chinese students alone, contributed 12 billion Australian dollars to the Australian economy in education exports. After government funding, international students represent the second greatest source of income for higher education institutions and are likely to continue to be an important target market of the Australian education industry into the future.


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