Jump in numbers of graduates and postgraduates

A wave of enthusiasm to earn a degree has hit young and old Australians, who are flocking into higher education institutions in unprecedented numbers.

Latest figures show that almost one in four Australians now hold a bachelor degree – up from 18% a decade ago – while ever increasing numbers are going on to undertake postgraduate studies.

Bindi Kindermann, programme manager for Australia’s national census, says attaining a university qualification is “an achievement that more and more Australians strive for”, but they are no longer stopping with a bachelor’s certificate. The number of Australians with postgraduate degrees has jumped by an astonishing 50% over the past five years.

“Geographically speaking, this is first time that the census reported [that] more than half Australia’s population aged 15 and over in each state and territory held a post-school qualification,” Kindermann says.

Although the number of Australians with a first degree has markedly increased, so has the number with additional graduate diplomas or graduate certificates as their highest level of qualification: Here a rise of 27% has occurred.

Location influences opportunities

But where Australians live also affects their chances of undertaking further studies – and also whether they opt for a university or a trade qualification.

Those living in the capital cities, who comprise 30% of the overall population, are almost twice as likely as regional inhabitants (16%) to hold a bachelor degree or higher.

Capital city occupiers are also more than 2.5 times as likely to have a postgraduate qualification: 7% in the capitals versus 2.7% in the regions.

In contrast, nearly a quarter of people in regional areas hold a technical post-school certificate qualification compared with just 16% of those in the capital cities.

Attainment gender gap

Results from the census also show that the gap in educational attainment between men and women has narrowed over the past decade. Ten years ago, 51% of Australian men and 42% of women held a post-school qualification while, a decade on, the gap had markedly shrunk, with 58% for men and 54% for women.

But there are still noticeable gender differences in which professions men and women tend to undertake.

The most common occupations for men with a bachelor degree or above are accountants and software programmers, whereas women are more likely to be registered nurses or primary school teachers.

Of the other fields of study that Australians undertake, management and commerce are the most popular, with 2.1 million students enrolled – an increase of 23% since 2011.

That number far exceeds those enrolled in engineering and related technologies, which attract 1.7 million students, an increase of 11% over the last decade.

Foreign students boost numbers

Dr Bob Birrell, one of Australia’s best-known population experts, says a key reason for the growth in postgraduate enrolments is because of an extraordinary rise in overseas student numbers.

“Overseas students dominate postgraduate enrolments in Australia, especially in business,” Birrell says.

“And most of the increase in those undertaking masters of art degrees by coursework is because of the overseas students.”

But Birrell also points to the remarkable rise in the number of young Australians aged 25-34 years who now hold postgraduate degrees.

“Getting a postgraduate degree improves the chances of a graduate getting a professional-level job – so much so that today 40% of Australians aged 25-34 have postgraduate qualifications,” he says.

Postgraduates want more support

The federal government has been implored to give more financial help to postgraduates.

In a federal pre-budget submission, the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations has called for income support to be extended to all domestic full-time postgraduate students, as is already available to undergraduates.

“With a federal budget surplus now projected, we echo the plea of Universities Australia that the government must take this opportunity to reinvest in the nation’s research capabilities,” says council President Natasha Abrahams.

“In particular, there is an urgent need to develop Australia’s future innovators: our current and prospective postgraduate students. We renew our call for income support to be extended to all domestic full-time postgraduate students.”

In the submission, the council says 72% of students undertaking masters-level degrees are not eligible for government income support, leaving students “scrambling to balance employment with their full-time studies”.

“Financial pressures are a key reason that students withdraw from their studies prematurely, so improving access to income support has the capacity to increase completion rates and therefore reduce wastage of government and student funds.”

Mental health worries

But postgraduates also experience mental health disorders and distress at greater rates than undergraduates, the council says, and it calls on the government to boost the number of sessions where postgraduates can obtain psychological support and counselling.

“Many postgraduate students are at breaking point. Extending income support and access to mental health care are essential to supporting students to complete and succeed in their studies,” Abrahams says.

“A postgraduate degree should not have to mean poverty and mental distress.”


I completed my first Australian post-grad qualification in the field of education in the very early 90s. Return to an Australian university in 2015 for another bite of post-grad in a similar area, I couldn't believe the diminishment in the quality of the experience. And, bizarrely, the first round cost me very little while 2015 cost an arm and a leg!

Patrick Kelleghan on the University World News Facebook page