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Report highlights strengths in tertiary education systems

ACER news 6 minute read

A 7-country review of tertiary education systems has been conducted by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) to identify strengths to support Australia’s future workforce.

The ACER report – International Comparison of Tertiary Education Systemshas supported the work of the Australian Universities Accord panel and is published this week by the Department of Education.

Tertiary systems in Australia, Germany, Norway, the United Kingdom, Korea, Singapore and New Zealand were examined in the research, with all countries except Germany showing higher rates (than the OECD average) of tertiary level qualifications among those aged between 25 and 64.

Australia’s higher education institutions and registered training providers ‘form a system that educates Australia’s future workforce and supports the national growth and innovation agenda’, the researchers noted.

To build a picture of how others performed in this context, they looked at things like participation, qualifications achieved, market outcomes, structure and governance, accreditation and public and private returns on investment.  Links between vocational education and training (VET) and higher education were also examined.

Participation and achievement

Significantly, Australians were shown to be seeking tertiary education at all stages of their working lives.

In 2020, when more than 1.7 million students were in tertiary education, almost half (49.8%) of Australia’s 20-year-olds were enrolled. This was the second highest rate behind Korea, with 70.3%.

Australia’s enrolment rates in every nominated age group between 25 and 64 were equal to or higher than the other countries with comparable data.

Rates of achieving qualifications varied across the countries.

In 2019, graduation rates for domestic students under the age of 30 who undertook a ‘first-time’ bachelor degree (or equivalent) were higher in Australia (at 34%) than the OECD average and New Zealand, similar to Germany, but slightly below Norway and the UK.

Earlier research from 2016 suggests that lower rates of graduation were experienced in Australia by older students whose parents had not attained tertiary qualifications.

Income and benefits

Generally across all countries, higher education rates equated with higher employment rates and incomes. However the rate of employment for those with tertiary qualifications in Australia (75%) and Korea (73%) in 2020 was slightly lower than OECD average (76%), and relative earnings for those with tertiary qualifications in Australia were found to be lower than for their counterparts in Germany and the UK in 2019.

The report concludes that across all countries ‘the financial gains of a tertiary education qualification outweigh the associated costs’.

While ‘public returns’ or benefits – where individuals with higher incomes pay higher tax and require less social support – were found to be lower for women than men in all countries, there was a positive sign for Australian women in the research.

In balancing the cost of fees and reduced earning capacity while studying, against the increased employment opportunities and higher wages upon graduation, women were found to have higher returns in Norway and Australia, unlike many of the other countries considered.

Links between vocational and higher education

The research also examined links between higher education and vocational education and training (VET).

‘Systems in Singapore and New Zealand demonstrate the advantage of having direct national control of the education system,’ the research found.

‘In addition to avoiding the complications of federation, it also brings a greater level of consistency to the treatment of each education sector – schools, higher education and VET can all be governed in a similar way.

‘Each of the examples highlight the value of collaboration across government portfolios with an interest in education to establish a shared vision and priorities, which includes government departments for employment, industry, migration, science and finance.’

The report noted that the tertiary education landscape had become more complex in Australia since a Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission had been disbanded in 1988. 

Any new commission would need to ‘enable meaningful collaboration between all current stakeholders of tertiary education to support an integrated tertiary education system’, the authors advised.


Read the full report

International Comparison of Tertiary Education Systems by Dr Ian Teo, Dr Michelle Hsien, Dr Sarah Buckley and Anita Roberts

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