Guide to tertiary qualifications: which one is for you?

Choosing between different options
© Hongqi Zhang |

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.

Bachelor degree

A bachelor degree is the standard university degree, usually taking three to four years of full-time study. Recognised worldwide, it is the main gateway to professional occupations. The range of subject areas is large, as is the depth of knowledge endowed. In essence, a bachelor degree teaches you the skills to understand and evaluate new information, ideas and evidence from a wide range of sources, and the ability to consolidate, expand and apply that knowledge. You will learn essential skills like critical thinking, research and writing that will hold you in good stead in any professional environment.

You’ll major in at least one area, but are usually encouraged to study broadly. You often also have the opportunity to extend the degree with a further year of honours study, where you can do advanced study in an area of choice for a full year. Studying honours is usually a prerequisite for postgraduate study, and demonstrates your passion, persistence and advanced ability.

Graduate certificate and graduate diploma

These are undertaken after completing your undergraduate study with the aim of deepening or expanding the knowledge established in your undergraduate program, or to develop knowledge in a new area using the skills you’ve already developed. Graduate certificates usually take six months, and grad diplomas 12 months, and both are offered through both universities and private providers.


A master’s degree is designed to enhance specific skills, professional or vocational. Usually taking between one and two years, the master’s is most commonly a combination of research and course work, and is all about acquiring in-depth knowledge in a specific area. Getting a master’s says something similar to prospective employers as an honours degree: that you’re passionate about a certain area, and driven enough to devote the time and money to turn it into a career.


Outside of a medical qualification, this is what gives you the title of ’Dr’ and is the highest qualification attainable in Australia. It usually takes at least three years to complete and involves a substantial amount of research in a specific area, coupled with a large research project and thesis to contribute appreciably to the discipline as a whole. An honours degree or equivalent is needed to qualify for doctorate study.

Some qualifications demand qualifications

With the exception of certificate I and some vocational courses that demand nothing but practical experience, you’ll usually need to prove that you’ve got what it takes to complete a qualification, and often that means having a lesser qualification – like having a higher school certificate to do a bachelor degree, or having a certificate IV to qualify for a diploma.

If you’re an international student and want to qualify for entry into Australian courses, you might need to complete what’s called a foundation course. These are courses designed to give international students an entry point into undergraduate degrees in Australia. Usually one year in length, they differ depending on the discipline – arts, science or business, for example. To get into a foundation course, you’ll need to pass some English language requirements, as well as your home country’s end-of-school certificate.
A bridging course is for those who wish to enter a university course but for whatever reason, don’t meet the assumed knowledge requirements. It’s usually a short, intensive course, and not designed for international students.

So what’s best for you?

The right qualification for you depends on two things – where you’ve come from and where you’re going. That means the experience you already hold, the job or career you’re after, and the time and money you have at your disposal to complete a qualification.
This is why you need to plan. If you want to do a doctorate, you need to follow the bachelor–honours–doctorate route. Want to become an aged care worker? You could do a Bachelor of Applied Social Sciences (Community Services), but in most cases, a certificate III or IV is all you should need.
In any case, getting qualified is your ticket to the career you want. Remember, a qualification isn’t just a piece of paper, but vouches for your dedication, determination, passion, knowledge and skills – solid proof that you have the intellectual ability and keenness to learn and get things done.

Check out our full range of courses and qualifications.

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