What is Tertiary Education in Australia?

Guide to tertiary qualifications: which one is for you?

Choosing between different options© Hongqi Zhang | Dreamstime.com

These days, there aren’t too many workplaces that rely wholly on on-the-job training to educate their employees. While this kind of instruction often forms the bulk of learning at a new job, to get your foot in the door you often need one important thing: a formal tertiary qualification.

Qualifications make job seekers employable, and they help employers sort the wheat from the chaff – to sieve the skilled and knowledgeable from those without a solid knowledge base. They may not guarantee success at a job, but they act as assurance that candidates possess a foundation of understanding and training.

The problem is that there are thousands of qualifications out there and it can all get a little confusing. Even if you know the field you wish to enter, it can be difficult to decide between a bachelor degree, a diploma or a certificate. A wrong choice at a vital educational crossroads could see you forking out unnecessary cash or spending more time than necessary chasing a qualification you may not need or want.

So you need to be informed. What are your options and how does this hierarchy of competencies break down?
Broadly speaking, there are two categories of qualifications in Australia: vocational and higher education. Under those two umbrellas, there are a range of different qualifications tiered to provide different levels of training for different career outcomes.

Vocational education and training

Vocational courses are usually practical courses aimed at preparing you for employment in a range of vocational occupations – from IT to business admin, make-up artistry to bookkeeping.

Certificate I and II

After high school, these are basic tertiary qualifications to prepare you to perform a range of relatively standard and defined activities and tasks. If you need a basic level of knowledge in something with little or no entry prerequisites, this is the way to go. A certificate I will normally take around four to six months, with a certificate II around six to eight months.

Certificate III and IV

The difference between these and the certificate I and II comes down to the amount and breadth of information that you learn, and the level of responsibility this enables you to take on in your future role. A certificate III usually takes around 12 months and is ideal for people wishing to change occupations, or to move out of entry-level positions, whereas a certificate IV, lasting up to 18 months, caters more for those wishing to qualify for roles of greater responsibility and complexity.
Certificate courses are usually delivered by TAFE colleges, community education centres, registered training organisations (RTOs) and private colleges.

Diploma/Advanced diploma

Both diplomas and advanced diplomas offer broader and deeper knowledge than those facilitated by a certificate III or IV. From this, you’ll be able to transfer skills and concepts to a wider range of situations that demand problem-solving, and generally take on more responsibility. Advanced diplomas usually incorporate more management skills and take up to three years, whereas diplomas usually take up to two.

Diplomas and advanced diplomas are for the most part offered through TAFE colleges, community education centres and private RTOs, but some are available via university study.

Higher education/university qualifications

University courses are usually more heavily grounded in theory and are generally considered more academic than their vocational counterparts. They’re less about providing the specific practical skills you’ll need than giving you a framework of knowledge from which to work. There’s not the same emphasis on employability as vocational training and university degrees often take longer, but this is where you go if you want to get into a professional career.

Associate degree

This is a two-year undergraduate qualification that offers broad-based competency in a given field. In Australia, associate degrees are similar to advanced diplomas, but are more academic rather than vocational. They’re sort of like a shorter bachelor degree offered by universities, private providers and VET providers alike. You can usually articulate into a bachelor degree in a related area of study.

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