Higher levels of educational attainment tend to be associated with increased likelihood of being employed, and higher earnings (OECD  2018). On average across OECD countries, adults with a tertiary degree earn 54% more than their secondary-educated peers (OECD 2018).

Increasing levels of education has been shown to have an overall positive effect on an individual’s life satisfaction, particularly through the indirect effects of improved income and better health. (Powdthavee et al. 2015), see ‘Chapter 2 Social determinants of subjective wellbeing’ in Australia’s welfare 2021: data insights.

Impacts of COVID-19

In 2020 and 2021, the higher and vocational education sectors were heavily impacted by the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. In an effort to reduce the spread of the virus, initiatives such as international travel restrictions and border control measures, non-essential service shutdown, social distancing and remote and home-based learning were implemented.

Restrictions on international travel saw dramatic falls in the number of international students undertaking studies at Australian universities. In late 2020, there was a reduction of approximately 12.3% in enrolments to Australian Universities by international students. It is estimated by July 2021 there will be a 50% reduction in international students in Australia and  an increase in international students outside of Australia (Hurley 2020). This has had a profound impact on the higher education sector, and the Australian economy more broadly, that will continue to be felt into the future.

Face-to-face classes in the Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector were heavily restricted and moved to online methods and for those students undertaking work placements in the health, aged care and early childhood sectors, the impact was even more profound.

The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the higher and vocational education sectors is yet to be completely understood and will be a topic for researchers and the education sector into the future.

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 2020).

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 2019).


  • 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).

For the characteristics of higher education and VET providers and students, see Table 1.

Table 1: Characteristics of higher education and VET providers and students, 2019


Higher education


Number of providers



Number of students

1.5 million

4.2 million(c)

Percentage of students who are female

55.6 (d)


Percentage who are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students



Percentage who are full-time students



Percentage who are international students



  1. Number of higher education providers in 2017. This is the most recent data available at the time of writing.

  2. Includes Australian providers operating overseas (NCVER 2020).

  3. Includes students enrolled with Australian providers operating overseas (NCVER 2020).

  4. Students as a proportion of all higher education student enrolments in 2019 (DESE 2019).

  5. Students as a proportion of all VET student enrolments in 2019 (NCVER 2020).

Sources: DET 2020; NCVER 2020; TEQSA 2019.


In May 2020, 12% of males and 15% of females aged 15–64 were enrolled in non-school qualifications.

In 2020:

  • nearly half of students aged 15–64 (1.4 million, 44%) were enrolled with a higher education institution, while around 1 in 7 (475,000, 15%) were enrolled with a TAFE institution (ABS 2020)
  • students most likely to be enrolled in a non-school qualification were aged 20–24 (44% of the population of that age), followed by those aged 15–19 (26%), and 25–29 (19%)
  • most enrolments were for a Bachelor degree (52%), followed by Certificate III or IV level study (20%) and postgraduate level degree (15%)
  • a greater proportion of males (25%) than females (16%) were enrolled in a Certificate III or IV. Females were slightly more likely to be studying for a Bachelor degree (60%) compared with males (49%)
  • 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 2020).


The line graph shows the field of study chosen by students studying non-school qualifications, for each year since 2008. The proportion of students studying agriculture, environmental and related studies ranged from 2.3% in 2008 to 1.7% in 2020; architecture and building from 6.0% to 5.3%; creative arts from 6.4% to 4.6%; education from 6.4% to 7.5%; engineering and related technologies from 12.2% to 8.4%; food, hospitality and personal services from 4.4% to 2.7%; health from 10.8% to 14.7%; information technology from 3.7% to 4.5%; management and commerce 25.2% to 21.1%; natural and physical sciences from 3.6% to 5.0%; and society and culture from 17.7% to 22.1%.

Attainment of non-school qualifications

Non-school qualifications are associated with improved employment status, with employment rates higher for people with non-school qualifications. Of people aged 15–74 with non-school qualifications, 74% were employed in May 2020, compared with 49% of those without qualifications (ABS 2020).

In May 2020, of students aged 15–74:

  • 3 in 5 (60%), or 11.7 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 almost one-third (30%) had attained a Certificate III or IV
  • just over 6 in 10 males (62%) and females (62%) had a non-school qualification
  • people aged 35–44 were most likely to have a non-school qualification (78%), with the rate of attainment decreasing with increasing age (45–54 years, 70%; 55–64 years, 61%; 65–74 years, 51%)
  • people born overseas (67%) were more likely than people born in Australia (59%) 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 (70% compared with 50% respectively) (ABS 2020).

International comparisons

In 2019 (or latest available year), Australia ranked 8th highest out of 37 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries for the proportion of those aged 25–34 having a tertiary education (OECD 2021).

The OECD defines tertiary education as having an International Standard Classification of Education of 5 or above (OECD 2017). In Australia, this means tertiary education comprises qualifications at Diploma level or above (UNESCO 2019). According to the OECD, Australia (53%) ranked below South Korea (70%) and Canada (63%), but above the United Kingdom (52%), United States (50%), and the OECD average (45%) (Figure 2).


This horizontal bar chart shows the proportion of those aged 25–64 with tertiary education across 37 OECD countries. In 2019, the proportions ranged from 23.6% in Mexico to 69.8% in South Korea.

Participation in STEM fields

In 2020, of students aged 15–64 who were studying for a non-school qualification, 20% were studying in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields (the same proportion as 2011) (see glossary for definition). Between 2011 and 2020, the proportion of males studying for a non-school STEM qualification was stable, while the proportion of females increased by 1 percentage point.

School retention rates and change by sex, 2011 and 2020

Of those studying for a non-school qualification in a STEM field in 2020, 72% were male and 28% female. The proportion of males decreased by 4 percentage points between 2011 and 2020, while the proportion of females increased by 4 percentage points (ABS 2011, 2020).

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 2020. Education and work, Australia, May 2020. ABS cat. no. 6227.0. Canberra: ABS

DESE (Department of Education, Skills and Employment) 2019. 2019 Student summary tables. Canberra: Department of Education, Skills and Employment.

Hurley P 2020. Coronavirus and international students. Melbourne: Mitchell Institute, Victoria University.

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

OECD 2017. OECD Handbook for Internationally Comparative Education Statistics. Paris: OECD Publishing.

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

OECD 2021. Population with tertiary education (indicator). doi: 10.1787/0b8f90e9-en Paris: OECD Publishing. Viewed 10 May 2021.

Powdthavee N, Lekfuangfu WN, Wooden M 2015. What's the good of education on our overall quality of life? A simultaneous equation model of education and life satisfaction for Australia. Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics, Volume 54, Pages 10-21.

TEQSA (Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency) 2019. Statistics report on TEQSA registered higher education providers—October 2019. Melbourne: TEQSA.

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