Higher levels of educational attainment tend to be associated with increased likelihood of being employed, being in good health, and reporting life satisfaction (OECD 2016b, 2018). Higher educational attainment is also associated with higher earnings, with tertiary educated adults earning 54% more than their secondary-educated peers (OECD 2018).

What are non-school qualifications?

Non-school qualifications include Certificate I to Certificate IV, Diploma, Bachelor, Master and Doctoral level qualifications. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) considers non-school qualifications at a Certificate III level or above to be higher than a Year 12 level of education (ABS 2018).

In Australia, non-school education can be broken into two categories:

Higher education

  • usually leads to the attainment of a Bachelor, Master or Doctoral degree, Graduate Certificate or Graduate Diploma
  • is provided by universities, for-profit or not-for-profit institutions, or Technical and Further Education (TAFE) institutes (TEQSA 2018).

Vocational Education and Training (VET)

  • provides training focused on technical skills and knowledge for a particular job or industry, with apprenticeships and traineeships forming a core part—see Apprenticeships and traineeships
  • usually leads to the attainment of Certificate or Diploma qualifications
  • is offered by private providers, enterprise providers, community education providers, schools, universities and TAFE institutes (NCVER 2018).

Table 1: Characteristics of higher education and VET providers and students, 2017


Higher education


Number of providers



Number of students

1.5 million

4.2 million(c)

Percentage of students who are female



Percentage who are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australian students



Percentage who are full-time students



Percentage who are international students



(a) Number of higher education providers in 2016. Data for 2017 was not available at the time of writing.

(b) Includes Australian providers operating overseas (NCVER 2018).

(c) Includes students enrolled with Australian providers operating overseas (NCVER 2018).

(d) Students as a proportion of all higher education student enrolments in 2017 (DET 2018).

(e) Students as a proportion of all VET student enrolments in 2017 (NCVER 2018).

Sources: DET 2018; NCVER 2018; TEQSA 2018.


In May 2018, the proportion of people aged 15–64 enrolled in non-school qualifications was 14% (2.2 million) (ABS 2018), an increase from 12% (1.7 million) in 2008 (ABS 2008).

In 2018:

  • nearly two-thirds of students aged 15–64 (1.4 million, 63%) were enrolled with a higher education institution, while 1 in 5 (472,800, 21%) were enrolled with a TAFE institution (ABS 2018)
  • students most likely to be enrolled in a non-school qualification were aged 20–24 (46% of the population of that age), followed by those aged 15–19 (27%), and 25–29 (19%)
  • most enrolments were for a Bachelor degree (42%), followed by Certificate III or IV level study (20%) and postgraduate level degree (14%)
  • the age distribution of enrolled students changed compared with 2008. While the proportion of those aged 15–64 studying at a Certificate III level or above increased across all age groups, those aged 20–24 showed the greatest increase (36% to 44%), and those aged 45–54 the smallest increase (4.1% to 4.2%)
  • a greater proportion of males (24%) than females (17%) were enrolled in a Certificate III or IV. Females were slightly more likely to be studying for a Bachelor degree (43%) or an Advanced Diploma or Diploma (14%), compared with males (40% and 11% respectively)
  • the most common fields of study were Society and culture (22% of people enrolled, up from 18% in 2008) and Management and commerce (21%, down from 25% in 2008) (Figure 1). Health became a more common field of study since 2008 (15%, up from 11%). Enrolments in other fields of study remained fairly consistent over the period (ABS 2018).


The line graph shows the field of study chosen by students studying non-school qualifications, for each year over 10 years. The proportion of students studying agriculture, environmental and related studies ranged from 2.3% in 2008 to 1.5% in 2018; architecture and building from 6.0% to 5.5%; creative arts from 6.4% to 4.6%; education from 6.4% to 7.0%; engineering and related technologies from 12.2% to 9.3%; food, hospitality and personal services from 4.4% to 2.2%; health from 10.8% to 14.9%; information technology from 3.7% to 4.1%; management and commerce 25.2% to 20.5%; natural and physical sciences from 3.6% to 5.4%; and society and culture from 17.7% to 22.0%.

Attainment of non-school qualifications

Non-school qualifications tend to be associated with improved employment status (SCRGSP 2019). In 2018, 63% of VET graduates who completed a qualification above Diploma level in 2017 had improved employment status, followed by those with a Certificate III (62%), Certificate IV (61%), Diploma (59%), Certificate I (49%) and Certificate II (42%).

In May 2018, of students aged 15–74:

  • 3 in 5 (60%), or 11.1 million, had a non-school qualification. Of these, almost half (45%, 5.0 million) had a qualification at the Bachelor degree level or higher, and one-third (30%) had attained a Certificate III or IV
  • similar proportions of males (61%) and females (60%) had a non-school qualification
  • people aged 30–34 were most likely to have a non-school qualification (77%), with the rate of attainment decreasing with increasing age (35–44 years, 74%; 45–54 years, 67%; 55–64 years, 60%; 65–74 years, 50%)
  • people born overseas (65%) were more likely than people born in Australia (58%) to have a non-school qualification
  • those living in the highest socioeconomic areas were more likely to have a non-school qualification than people in the lowest socioeconomic areas (69% compared with 50% respectively) (ABS 2018).

International comparisons

In 2015, Australia ranked seventh out of 36 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries for the proportion of those aged 25–64 having a tertiary education (OECD 2016a).

The OECD defines tertiary education as having an International Standard Classification of Education of 5 or above (OECD 2016a). In Australia, this means tertiary education comprises qualifications at Diploma level or above (UNESCO 2019). According to the OECD, Australia (43%) ranked below Canada (55%), the United States (45%), and the United Kingdom (44%), but above the OECD average (36%) (Figure 2).


This horizontal bar chart shows the proportion of 25–64-year-olds with tertiary education across 36 OECD countries. In 2015, the proportions ranged from 16.3% in Mexico to 55.2% in Canada.

Participation in STEM fields

In 2018, of students aged 15–64 who were studying for a non-school qualification, 20% were studying in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields (down from 22% in 2008). A greater proportion of males (33%) were studying STEM than females (10%). Between 2008 and 2018, the proportion of males studying for a non-school STEM qualification decreased by 1.5 percentage points, while the proportion of females increased by half a percentage point.

Of those studying for a non-school qualification in a STEM field in 2018, 73% were male and 27% female. The proportion of males decreased by 2.3 percentage points between 2011 and 2018, while the proportion of females increased by 2.9 percentage points (ABS 2008, 2011, 2018).

Where do I go for more information?

For more information on non-school education, see:


ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2008. Education and work, Australia, May 2008. ABS cat. no. 6227.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2011. Education and work, Australia, May 2011. ABS cat. no. 6227.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2018. Education and work, Australia, May 2018. ABS cat. no. 6227.0. Canberra: ABS.

DET (Department of Education and Training) 2018. Higher education student enrolment summary statistics for the 2017 full year. Canberra: Department of Education and Training.

NCVER (National Centre for Vocational Education Research) 2018. Australia vocational education and training statistics: total VET students and courses 2017. Adelaide: NCVER. 

OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) 2016a. Education at a Glance 2016: OECD Indicators. Paris: OECD Publishing.

OECD 2016b. How are health and life satisfaction related to education? Education Indicators in Focus, no. 47. Paris: OECD Publishing.

OECD 2018. Education at a Glance 2018: OECD Indicators. Paris: OECD Publishing. 

SCRGSP (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision) 2019. Report on Government Services 2019. Canberra: Productivity Commission.

TEQSA (Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency) 2018. Statistics report on TEQSA registered higher education providers—August 2018. Melbourne: TEQSA.

UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) 2019. ISCED Mappings, Australia, 2011. Paris: UNESCO. Viewed 8 March 2019.