MEASURING EDUCATION IN AUSTRALIAN CENSUSES - 1911 to 2001
The history of the education questions in the Census of Population and Housing provides an interesting insight into how education was perceived and valued in the past. Questions on education have included: whether able to read and write; current participation; age left school; highest level of education; and highest post-school education. Since Federation, various attempts have been made to measure the level of educational achievement in the population. However, obtaining reliable and accurate data proved challenging at times, particularly when measuring highest education levels.
Prior to Federation, each colony was responsible for its own Census collection. To determine the degree of education in the population, most used the categories of 'read and write', 'read only' and 'cannot read'. Some used the same categories for other languages to avoid classifying non-English speakers as illiterate if they could not read or write in English. There were also various attempts to gain data on the number of people within the population who held university degrees. For example, in Victoria in 1891, the degrees of university graduates were determined by the letters placed against a person's name. In Western Australia in 1891, data were obtained on university graduates through the Householder's Schedule, which requested information on people who were "graduates of any University, together with the designations of their respective degrees, and of the Universities at which they were severally conferred."1 The Census held during the first year of Federation, 1901, was again collected by each State separately, with the questions remaining similar to those in previous years.
1911 Census of the Commonwealth of Australia
The first national Census collected information on current schooling. Schooling at that time meant school or university. The four possible responses for those receiving education were University (U), State School (S), any other school (P, analysed as Private School) or Home Schooling (H). Two responses commonly used in the 1901 Census schedule, 'colleges' and 'denominational' were removed, due to varying definitions.
In the Census in 1911, questions were also asked about education level in terms of whether a person could read and write. The query on the Census Card appeared as follows:
And the corresponding instruction was:
"Line 13.-- Write CR for cannot read, R for read only, and RW for read and write. If not able to read English, but able to read a foreign language write RF and if not able to read and write English but able to read and write a foreign language write RWF."
However, in the Statistician's report on this Census, the use of a question on reading and writing was challenged. Previous Census findings that Australian literacy levels had risen from 58% in 1861 to 80% in 19012, had led to the belief that compulsory schooling, first introduced in Western Australia in 1871 with the other States following soon after, was the contributing factor behind increased literacy. It was also believed that, "with the enforcement of compulsory education the number of cases in which persons reach mature age unable to read is necessarily very small and relatively insignificant".3 The following two censuses in 1921 and 1933 both contained a question on reading and writing, but were used to identify language use rather than for education level.
As part of the same question, an attempt was made to obtain data on the highest level of achievement (in order to gain some insight into the prevalence of university graduates). The instruction on the Census Card in relation to Question 13 (above) was:
"If the person to whom the card relates has obtained a University degree, state the degree, and give the name of the University and country in which it was obtained."
This initial attempt at obtaining a measure of university attainment was seen as unsuccessful and withdrawn from use. This was partly a result of the Statistician's view that the data were neither reliable nor accurate. The Statistician's report on the Census stated that:
"Not only were there many cases in which known holders of degrees had failed to furnish the desired information, apparently through failure to carefully read the instructions, but there were many cases in which existing and non-existent degrees of existing and non-existent Universities were recorded as possessed by persons whose acquaintance with a University must have been a negligible quantity."4
The Census cards of alleged university degree holders were sorted out for tabulation, but were not processed further as it was deemed that the "tabulation of such data would not only be labour wasted, but would be actually misleading." 5
It was not until 1966 that another attempt was made to broaden the scope of education questions and gain information on qualifications held.
1966 Census of the Commonwealth of Australia
In 1966 the first attempt to achieve the highest level of schooling completed (up to secondary school) was trialed. The query on the Census Card appeared as follows:
"For each person state the highest level of schooling completed."
The corresponding instruction was provided according to the State in which the person resided, in order to deal with problems of differing school systems. Generally the instruction was:
"For each person state the highest level of schooling completed. If passed at Leaving or Matriculation level, write 'M'. If passed at Intermediate level, write 'J'. If attended secondary school (e.g. high, technical, non-government) but passed no examinations at Intermediate level or above, write 'H'. If attended or completed infants' or primary school or passed final primary examinations such as Qualifying Certificate (Q.C.) or Merit, write 'P'. If never attended school, write 'N'."
This attempt was not completely successful due to a misunderstanding of the instruction. People still at school were expected to answer 'H' (attended secondary school but passed no examinations). However, use of past tense wording for attendance, rather than present tense, resulted in some people who were attending secondary school being coded as having only attended primary school, or the level of schooling was not stated. The topic was again covered in the census in 1971 and was resolved in 1976 by the inclusion of a 'still at school' category.
A second attempt (the first since 1911) to retrieve information on qualifications obtained was also made during this census with the aim of determining two additional levels of completed education, university degree and other tertiary qualifications. This time the information was requested in a separate question, with the query being:
"State the person's qualifications, trade training or other qualifications and the institution at which obtained."
Examples were also provided, including Bachelor of Engineering, University of Sydney; Diploma of Architecture, South Australian Institute of Technology; and Five years' Apprenticeship.
This attempt led to similar questions being included in each subsequent Census, with some expansion of information requested.
1976 Census of Population and Housing
In 1976, the wording of the question regarding highest level of schooling was changed to ask the age at which the person left school. This change was deemed necessary in order to address the discrepancies between the schooling systems across Australia.
The first question to directly request information on highest education qualifications was introduced in this census. The wording was:
"Has this person obtained a trade or other qualification since leaving school?"
The subsequent question asked for details of the highest qualification obtained. While it was specified that only the details of the highest qualification should be provided, some respondents still provided details of all their qualifications.
1991 Census of Population and Housing
The 1991 Census introduced the Australian Bureau of Statistics Classification of Qualifications (ABSCQ), which was developed during the late 1980s to provide a systematic and statistically balanced approach to education classification. Its purpose was to enhance comparability of education statistics from different sources within the ABS, and potentially those outside the Bureau. Its main function was to bring together the elements of level of attainment and field of study. Prior to the introduction of the ABSCQ, fields of study were developed for each level of attainment. The ABSCQ was the result of the development of one set of field of study classifications which could be applied to every level of attainment.
1996 Census of Population and Housing
In 1996 the Census question regarding the highest qualification obtained was changed to the highest qualification completed, to reduce the number of respondents stating qualifications for which they were still studying. Examples provided were also changed, from Registered Nursing Certificate and Bricklaying Trade Certificate, to trade certificate, bachelor degree, associate diploma and doctorate. This was deemed necessary as the examples used previously had caused some confusion for respondents with these degrees as to whether or not their qualification was included. In another change, the non-government category for primary and secondary schools was expanded into Catholic and Other non-government, reflecting an increase in the need for more information by clients.
2001 Census of Population and Housing
The 2001 Census will see the introduction of the Australian Standard Classification of Education (ASCED). This classification will also be implemented nationally in education research and collections so that data on qualifications from various sources will be comparable.
Other changes to the education section of the 2001 Census include changing the question regarding 'age left school' back to a question similar to the 1966 query of 'highest year of schooling'. However, respondents will not be required to enter a code based on the level of school attained, but will instead be provided with options, including 'Still at school', 'Did not go to school', 'Year 8 or below', 'Year 9 or equivalent' and so on until Year 12. Examples of highest qualification will also be changed, with doctorate being removed, and certificate and advanced diploma included.
1 Gale, Walter A. 1892, Census Western Australia, April, 1891: General Report with Appendices, R. Pether Government Printer, Perth, p. 10.
2 Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics 1908, Official Year Book of the Commonwealth of Australia No.1, McCarron, Bird & Co. Printers, Melbourne.
3-5 Commonwealth Statistician 1917, Census of the Commonwealth of Australia 3rd April, 1911, Vol 1: Statistician's Report Including Appendices, McCarron, Bird & Co. Printers, Melbourne, p. 166.
This page last updated 3 October 2007