Participation in secondary school enables young people to develop their skills and knowledge, increasing their productivity and often leading to higher personal earnings and improved health and wellbeing outcomes. A highly skilled workforce also contributes to economic growth (World Bank 2005). In Australia, completing Year 12 or an equivalent qualification is an important milestone in the transition to adulthood (Liu & Nguyen 2011). Those who have completed Year 12 are more likely to continue with further education or training and have a more successful transition into the workforce (ABS 2011).

Impact of COVID-19

In an effort to reduce the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), several restrictions have been put in place across Australia, including non-essential service shutdowns, social distancing and remote and home-based learning.

Throughout the pandemic, Australian schools have generally been kept open. However, in light of extended lockdowns in many states and territories, online delivery or remote learning have been implemented for many education programs. While some schools may have been temporarily closed in 2020 due to disruptions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the latest collection of enrolment and registration data for Australian schools was not greatly impacted (ABS 2021).

Are students staying in school?

The apparent retention rate to Year 12 is an estimate of the percentage of students who stay enrolled full time in secondary education from the start of secondary school (year 7 or 8, depending on the state or territory) to Year 12 (see Glossary).

In 2020, the apparent retention rate to Year 12 was 84%, an increase from 79% in 2011 (ABS 2021).

School retention rates and change by sex, 2011 and 2020

In 2020, more females than males were staying in school until Year 12; 88% of females compared with 79% of males. Apparent retention rates for both sexes have increased since 2011, by 4 percentage points for females and 5 percentage points for males (ABS 2021).

Note: Proportions are rounded to the nearest whole percentage.

Attainment of Year 12 or equivalent

The attainment rate is the proportion of all estimated Year 12 students who meet the requirements of a Year 12 or equivalent qualification (see glossary) (SCRGSP 2021). This rate increased from 70% in 2010 to a peak of 79% in 2018, before declining to 72% in 2019.

In 2020, around 8 in 10 (79%) people aged 15–64 had attained Year 12 or equivalent or a non-school qualification at Certificate III level or above (ABS 2020).

The National School Reform Agreement

The National School Reform Agreement (NSRA) is a joint agreement between the Commonwealth, States and Territories to lift student outcomes across Australian Schools (DESE 2018). It commenced on 1 January, 2019 and will expire on 31 December, 2023. The NSRA sets a target of 90% Year 12 (or equivalent) or Certificate III attainment or above for young people aged 20–24 by 2020. The attainment rate increased overall between 2008 and 2020, from 83% to 89% (ABS 2020), landing close to the NSRA target.

The target to halve the gap for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 20–24 in Year 12 or equivalent attainment is on track to be met by 2020 (PM&C 2019). See Indigenous education and skills for more on this target.

In 2020, of people aged 20–24:

  • women (92%) were more likely than men (87%) to have completed Year 12 or a Certificate III or above, consistent with previous years
  • people living in Major cities (92%) were more likely than those living in other remoteness areas to have completed Year 12 or a Certificate III or above (Figure 1).

This horizontal bar chart shows that the proportion of persons aged 20–24 with Year 12 or equivalent, or non-school qualification at Certificate III level or above, varies by remoteness area. Major cities: 92.1%, Inner regional: 79.0%, Outer regional: 76.1%, Remote and Very Remote: 83.8%.

Expectation of university study

A student’s expectations of future education can influence their motivation, behaviour and achievement in school. Students with higher expectations of future study, including those who expect to go to university, tend to perform better (Khattab 2015; Hillman 2018).

The latest available data from the Programme for International Student Assessment in 2015 reported:

  • 54% of Australian students aged 15 expected to continue their study at university when they finished Year 12
  • 3.2% expected they would study at a Technical and Further Education (TAFE) institution
  • 60% of female students expected to complete a university degree compared with 49% of male students
  • Between 2003 and 2015, the proportion of Australian students aged 15 expecting to study at a:
    • university declined from 63% to 54%
    • TAFE institution declined from 8.0% to 3.2% (Hillman 2018).

The total number of commencing undergraduate students in 2019 was 384,400 (DET 2020). This was a 77% increase from 216,600 in 2003 (DET 2013). Commencing undergraduate domestic students increased 66% over the same period, from 166,500 in 2003 (DET 2013) to 276,100 in 2019 (DET 2020).

Marked disparities in educational expectations exist across different population groups, often reflecting wider patterns of disadvantage in Australia. In 2015:

  • only 28% of Indigenous students expected to complete a university degree, down from 43% in 2003
  • 39% of students in schools in remote areas expected to complete a university degree, compared with 59% of students in metropolitan areas
  • only 34% of students in the lowest socioeconomic quartile expected to complete a university degree, compared with 77% in the highest socioeconomic quartile
  • even among high achieving students, only 74% of those from low socioeconomic backgrounds expected to complete a university degree, compared with 92% from high socioeconomic backgrounds (Hillman 2018).

Of students born in Australia, only 48% expected to complete a university degree, compared with 70% of students born overseas (Hillman 2018).

International comparisons

According to the latest available data from 2015, Australia ranked 11th (at 54%) out of 34 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries for the proportion of 15-year-olds expecting to complete university (Figure 2). This was below the United States (first at 76%) and Canada (sixth at 64%) but above New Zealand (15th at 45%) and the United Kingdom (17th at 42%; Figure 2). The OECD average was 44% (OECD 2015).

This horizontal bar chart shows the proportion of 15-year-olds expecting to complete university across 35 OECD countries. In 2015, the proportions ranged from 17.4% in the Netherlands to 76.0% in the USA.

Where do I go for more information?

For more information on school retention and completion, see:


ABS 2011. Australian social trends March 2011: Year 12 attainment. ABS cat no. 4102.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2020. Education and Work, Australia, May 2020. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2021. Schools, 2020. ABS cat no. 4221.0. Canberra: ABS

DESE (Department of Education, Skills and Employment) 2018. National School Reform Agreement. Canberra: Department of Education and Training.

DET (Department of Education) 2013. Higher Education Statistics 2004 Commencing students. TRIM reference D14/83054. Canberra: DET.

DET 2020. Higher Education Statistics 2019 Section 1 Commencing students. TRIM Reference D20/978542. Canberra: DET.

Hillman K 2018. PISA Australia in Focus no. 2: Educational expectations. Camberwell: Australian Council for Educational Research.

Khattab N 2015. Students’ aspirations, expectations and school achievement: what really matters? British Educational Research Journal 41:731–748.

Liu S & Nguyen N 2011. Longitudinal surveys of Australian youth, briefing paper 25: successful youth transitions. Adelaide: National Centre for Vocational Education Research Ltd.

OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) 2017. PISA 2015 Results, Students’ Well-being Volume III.

PM&C (Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet) 2019. Closing the Gap Prime Minister’s Report 2019. Canberra: PM&C. Viewed 17 August 2021.

SCRGSP 2021. Report on Government Services 2021: School education. Canberra: Productivity Commission.

World Bank 2005. The importance of investing in secondary education. In expanding opportunities and building competencies for young people: a new agenda for secondary education. Washington: World Bank. Viewed 22 October 2018.