About Higher Education

The Australian higher education system is seen to make a fundamental contribution to the future of Australia and plays a vital role in Australia’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social development. The higher education sector educates our future professional workforce, creates future leaders, provides jobs for Australians, drives much of our economic and regional success, and facilitates cultural and trade links with other countries. The sector plays a key role in the growing knowledge and innovation based economic health of Australia. It enriches our social and environmental landscape and promotes the tolerance debate that underpins Australian society.

The objects of the Higher Education Support Act 2003, the current legislative basis for Australian Government funding of higher education, are:

  1. to support a higher education system that:
    1. is characterised by quality, diversity and equity of access; and
    2. contributes to the development of cultural and intellectual life in Australia; and
    3. is appropriate to meet Australia’s social and economic needs for a highly educated and skilled population; and
  2. to support the distinctive purposes of universities, which are:
    1. the education of persons, enabling them to take a leadership role in the intellectual, cultural, economic and social development of their communities; and
    2. the creation and advancement of knowledge; and
    3. the application of knowledge and discoveries to the betterment of communities in Australia and internationally; recognising that universities are established under laws of the Commonwealth, the States and the Territories that empower them to achieve their objectives as autonomous institutions through governing bodies that are responsible for both the university’s overall performance and its ongoing independence; and
  3. to strengthen Australia’s knowledge base, and enhance the contribution of Australia’s research capabilities to national economic development, international competitiveness and the attainment of social goals; and
  4. to support students undertaking higher education.

The Australian higher education sector

The higher education sector in Australia is made up of universities and other higher education institutions – or higher education providers.

A higher education provider is a body that is established or recognised by or under the law of the Australian Government, a State, the Australian Capital Territory or the Northern Territory. The provider has to be approved by the Australian Government Minister for Education before it can receive grants or its students can receive assistance from the Australian Government under the Higher Education Support Act 2003 (HESA).  Providers are subject to quality and accountability requirements.  

A higher education provider is either a:

The Australian higher education system comprises:

  • 39 universities of which 37 are public institutions and 2 are private;
  • 1 Australian branch of an overseas university;
  • 3 other self-accrediting higher education institutions; and
  • non-self-accrediting higher education providers accredited by State and Territory authorities, numbering more than 150 as listed on State and Territory registers. These include several that are registered in more than one State and Territory. 

    The non-self-accrediting higher education providers form a very diverse group of specialised, mainly private, providers that range in size and include theological colleges and other providers that offer courses in areas such as business, information technology, natural therapies, hospitality, health, law and accounting.

Responsibilities for higher education

The Australian Government has the primary responsibility for public funding of higher education.

Australian Government funding support for higher education is provided largely through:

  • the Commonwealth Grant Scheme which provides for a specified number of Commonwealth Supported places each year;
  • the Higher Education Loan Programme (HELP) arrangements providing financial assistance to students;
  • the Commonwealth Scholarships; and
  • a range of grants for specific purposes including quality, learning and teaching, research and research training programmes.

The Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science and Tertiary Education is the Australian Government Department with responsibility for administering this funding and for developing and administering higher education policy and programs.

Decision-making, regulation and governance for higher education are shared among the Australian Government, the State and Territory Governments and the institutions themselves.

By definition within Australia, universities are self-accrediting institutions and each university has its own establishment legislation (generally State and Territory legislation) and receive the vast majority of their public funding from the Australian Government, through the Higher Education Support Act 2003.

Some aspects of higher education are the responsibility of States and Territories. In particular, most universities are established or recognised under State and Territory legislation.

The Australian National University and the Australian Film, Television and Radio School are established under Commonwealth legislation.

The Australian Catholic University is established under corporations law. It has establishment Acts in NSW and Victoria.

Many private providers are also established under corporations law.

States and Territories are also responsible for accrediting non-self-accrediting higher education providers.

As self-accrediting institutions, Australia’s universities have a reasonably high level of autonomy to operate within the legislative requirements associated with their Australian Government funding.

The Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) provides descriptors for qualifications accredited through the higher education sector, as well as those accredited by the vocational education and training sector and the schools sector. All accredited higher education providers are listed on the AQF register.

Eligibility for Australian Government grants

The Higher Education Support Act 2003 sets out the details of Australian Government funding and its associated legislative requirements.

Eligibility for public funding is determined by the Table (A, B or C) to which a provider is allocated within a Schedule of the Higher Education Support Act 2003.

Providers listed in Table A of HESA are eligible for all Australian Government grants and their students can receive all forms of assistance.

Providers listed in Table B are eligible for some grants for particular purposes as outlined under Section 41-10 of HESA. Students at Table B institutions can receive FEE-HELP assistance for tuition fees or HECS-HELP assistance for their student contribution amounts if enrolled in a National Priority place.

The application of HESA to Table C providers is outlined in Section 5-1 of HESA. 

There are also a number of private higher education providers which have been approved by the Australian Government to offer FEE-HELP for their students.


For more information about higher education, contact us.

Share this Page