Blog 🍎 School 13th September 2021

University in Australia: Your Students' Options

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James Leach

James is senior content marketing manager at BridgeU. He writes and directs content for BridgeU's university partners and our community of international schools

Going to university in Australia is an increasingly popular option, but what does it look like in practice? Find out about the different institutions and degrees available in this article!

Are your students thinking about going to university in Australia? It’s probably crossed their minds, as it’s not only prestigious but popular –  for many good reasons!

Of course, the decision to move abroad for post-secondary education is a big one, and it involves comparing lots of different factors before pinning down a country and institution. But ultimately, the driving motivation for undertaking any degree is to learn: the academic environment and options should be heavily weighted factors as students carry out their university research. Otherwise, they could end up with a teaching style, learning ethos or subject material don’t allow them to thrive.

Don’t worry, though. Australia has such varied and adaptable offerings that it’s unlikely any student will have to rule it out. And because there is so much variety, it’s important students understand their different options so that they can browse courses with all the information and ultimately find their perfect university match.

In this post, we’ll look at the different types of educational institutions in Australia and the degrees which Australian universities can confer.

Types of educational institutions


Australia has 43 universities spread across the entire country, and they aren’t centralised. That means they can be quite different from each other in lots of ways; they’re all run independently, and can decide on crucial details like their entry requirements, deadlines, and even course durations for themselves.

As a result, it’s important that students carry out thorough research, making notes on each individual university and course that they’re interested in (our university research worksheets can be helpful here!).

Educational philosophy

Although there’s a great deal of variety, Australian universities do broadly embrace the same approach to education.

Essentially, this approach is something of a middle-ground between the UK’s and the USA’s – two countries which are often considered opposing poles in terms of higher education. So what exactly does that mean in practice?

Australian degrees tend to allow for more specialisation than American ones, which take a very interdisciplinary and generalist approach, requiring students to undertake classes across a broad spectrum of subjects.

At the same time, in Australia students are generally afforded more flexibility than in the UK, and can choose a loose pathway or area rather than studying just one subject. In fact, students can usually study up to four subjects per semester.

For example, students at university in Australia might choose to apply either for a Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, or Bachelor of Law. But those labels encompass a variety of classes, and students can even go beyond those and stray from their general area of interest. Even more concrete degrees, like a Bachelor of Computer Science, allow a good amount of flexibility.

Majors and Minors

Australian universities often embrace what is considered the typical American approach, whereby students have a Major – the area they’re focused on – for which they have to complete a minimum number of credits, and a Minor which will need fewer credits for completion. Both of these sit within the broader pathway or area students selected as their programme.

For example, a student at the University of Queensland might choose the loose pathway/area of a Bachelor of Mathematics. They might then decide they’d like to Major in Data Analytics and Operations Research, with a Minor in Bioinformatics.

The academic year

Australian universities split their year into two semesters, each of which is split in half again. Essentially, students have four twelve-week blocks of classes. Broadly, these are:

  • February-April
  • April-July
  • July-October
  • October-December

Because Australia is in the southern hemisphere, its semesters might be the opposite of what students in the northern hemisphere are used to. Rather than running from September through to the summer, the Australian academic year begins in February or March, and ends in late November or December.

Note: Students who are particularly keen to stick to their academic calendar often have the option of starting their degrees in the second semester (sometime between July and October).

It’s important to note, though, that the first semester – the one beginning in February – is by far the most popular option. Students who choose to begin in the second semester might have a harder time meeting new people, as a lot of the induction events take place in the first semester, and many friendships will already have been formed.


This is a really important factor for students to consider as they weigh up different destinations. People respond really differently to different types of assessment, so choosing an approach that doesn’t best reflect their abilities could really impact the grades they graduate with. 

Assessment in Australia tends to be quite holistic and varied. While some countries/systems focus heavily (sometimes entirely) on final exams, Australian qualifications tend to take many more factors into account.

Typically, assessment will draw on:

  • Class participation
  • Written assignments
  • Final exams
  • Mid-year exams
  • Practical assignments
  • Group exercises

Of course, this can vary somewhat depending on each student’s institute and especially the classes they take. But overall, Australian universities will take a larger-picture view of students’ progress.

Sandstone universities and the Group of Eight

It’s worth noting two groups of Australian universities which are considered to be particularly prestigious – think of them as akin to the USA’s Ivy League, or the UK’s Russell group and redbrick universities.

The Sandstone Universities refers to a group which benefit from their own funding and research body, and are considered to be at the forefront of vital research. The group gets its name from its universities’ distinctive sandstone buildings (making the redbrick and Ivy League comparisons particularly fitting).

Membership is based on universities’ age – these are the oldest universities in their respective states. They are:

  • University of Adelaide
  • University of Melbourne
  • University of Queensland
  • University of Sydney
  • University of Tasmania
  • University of Western Australia

As well as academic and research excellence, Sandstone universities are closely associated with having a large proportion of international students. As you can see, they’re also in vibrant cities which are especially welcoming to international students, and whose multicultural ethos can help alleviate feelings of culture shock or isolation.

The Group of Eight is similar to the Sandstone universities, but the membership does differ slightly. It comprises Australia’s leading research-intensive universities, and is often likened to the UK’s Russell Group. They are consistently ranked the highest amongst Australian universities, and take some of the top spots in international rankings too.

The Group of Eight is made up of:

  • University of Adelaide
  • Australian National University
  • University of Melbourne
  • Monash University
  • UNSW Sydney
  • University of Queensland
  • University of Sydney
  • University of Western Australia

Unsurprisingly given the amount of overlap with the Sandstones and the academic pull of these institutions, the Group of Eight also has a large international contingent. In fact, one of its core tenets is fostering international academic bonds.

Private colleges

Although many Australian universities are publicly funded, there are hundreds of private options out there. They grant a wide range of qualifications, including VET (Vocational and Educational Training) qualifications and Advanced Diplomas/Associate’s degrees, Bachelor’s degrees and postgraduate qualifications.

It isn’t just in the source of their funding that private colleges differ from Australia’s public universities. They offer quite different academic experiences, particularly in terms of specialisation and size.

Colleges tend to focus on a particular subject area (e.g. business or engineering) and are typically smaller in class size and overall population, allowing students to form closer relationships with fellow students and instructors.

TAFE (Technical and Further Education)

Students looking for more vocational options might also consider TAFE, sometimes referred to as colleges. They have different entry requirements compared to universities, so students should look carefully to see whether they’re eligible and what they’ll need to provide.

The programmes at TAFE focus on particular careers, although they can also be gateways to tertiary degrees (and often grant students credit which can count towards an undergraduate degree).

Subjects range from Fashion to Finance to Fitness, also covering more abstract areas like Aboriginal Education, and very technical skills like Aviation Engineering.

It’s not just in course material that TAFE offer a lot of variety – the qualifications they can grant vary too, from certificates to Diplomas and Advanced Diplomas, with some also providing degree-level programmes in and of themselves.

Types of qualifications

Bachelor’s degrees

These are the most commonly conferred degrees at Australian universities – so much so, that they’re often referred to simply as ‘undergraduate degrees’. They’re likely familiar to both you and your students, as they’re offered around the world.

Like in the UK (remember, the Australian system is very much based on the UK’s!), Bachelor’s degrees take three academic years to complete.

Note: Unlike in the UK, medicine can’t generally be completed as a 5-year degree which students can begin straight from secondary school (although Monash University does provide this option as a combined Bachelor of Science and Doctor of Medicine). Instead, students would complete an undergraduate degree and then pursue medicine as a graduate qualification, like in the USA.

The same broadly holds true for veterinary medicine. The only university offering an undergraduate option in Australia is the University of Queensland.

Bachelor’s degrees with Honours

Generally, to receive ‘Honours’ students must complete an additional year (bringing the total to four), during which they carry out independent research towards the completion of a dissertation, thesis, or other extended project.

Double/Combined degree

One of the big draws of Australian university is the flexibility and variety it offers. This is especially clear in the option of the Double or Combined degree (which is not dissimilar to Combined or Dual Honours in the UK, or taking a double Major in the USA).

Rather than choosing just one pathway, students on this degree-type can choose two, for example arts and law, commerce and engineering, or science and arts.

It’s a very popular option amongst Australian and international students alike, but it can also often require an additional year of study.

Advanced Diplomas and Associate’s Degrees

These are vocational qualifications, often granted by TAFE but available at many other institutions, too. They are usually shorter, coming in at two years.

This is a great option for students who want to undertake specific training for a career path they’ve settled on.

On these kinds of courses, students may well have older classmates who have already entered the workforce and are looking to upskill, reskill, or simply refresh their training with the most modern technology and techniques.

International students have the option of transferring from an Advanced Diploma or Associate’s Degree (level 6 on the Australian Qualification Framework which measures all educational qualifications in the country) to a Bachelor’s degree (level 7). The change can’t be made the other way around though.

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