The Conceptual Basis of ASCED

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Australian Standard Classification of Education (ASCED)
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The concept of education

Education can be broadly defined as the lifetime process of obtaining knowledge, attitudes, skills, and socially valued qualities of character and behaviour. Education is generally considered to involve an intent to bring about learning, and for most types of education involves communication from one person to another. This communication can involve a wide variety of channels and media - it may be oral or written; it may be delivered face-to-face or by other means.

Education can occur within a variety of environments, some more formal than others. At one end of the spectrum is formal education, provided in the traditional manner by schools, universities and other formal institutions, which is typically systematic, planned and organised ahead of time, and usually has some evaluation of achievement. At the other end of the spectrum is non-formal education, which is generally unstructured and unplanned, and may not involve any student-teacher relationship or evaluation of achievement. Non-formal education includes some types of on-the-job training and self-directed learning, such as reading or following self-guided tutorials on computers. Learning also occurs unintentionally in a variety of non-formal situations. For example, while relaxing, conversing with friends, watching television, or listening to the radio, people can pick up knowledge about the world. A significant element of the learning experience of children as they grow up is of an informal, unstructured and incidental nature.

ASCED was developed primarily to provide a framework for statistical and administrative data on educational activity and attainment in Australia, rather than to provide a full framework for unstructured, unplanned or incidental learning activities. In developing ASCED it was therefore appropriate to adopt as far as possible the concepts used in ISCED 1997, which defines education as “... all deliberate and systematic activities designed to meet learning needs ...”.

The term “education” is used throughout this publication to refer to activities, formal or otherwise, which fall within this definition. The term is inclusive of the concept of training, because in the Australian context the traditional distinction between education and training has diminished and for many purposes is now inappropriate. Education is seen as extending beyond formal institutions and has become increasingly focused on producing marketable skills. Training now extends beyond vocational training institutions and the workplace, and is available in secondary schools, with students able to study for vocational certificates as part of their school work.

The scope of ASCED

It is intended that ASCED will provide the basis for consistency and comparability between data on a wide range of statistical variables collected from various data sources. While ASCED has been designed to be applied to a number of education related concepts such as a “qualification”, a “unit of study”, or a “module”, the notion of a “course of study” is still an important concept underpinning ASCED, particularly the Level of Education dimension. This is because it is generally, but not always, a course of study which leads to the award of a qualification attesting that an individual has achieved a particular level of educational attainment in a particular field.

In ASCED, all learning experiences which form part of a course leading to an award, or which include some form of assessment, are within scope of the classification.

However, some courses, and components thereof, and other activities which do not lead to an award, can also be classified to ASCED, even though ASCED may not have been specifically designed with this use in mind. For example, ASCED could be used to classify the in-house training activities of an organisation although there may be some such activities which may not be easily assigned to a specific ASCED category.

The entity being classified in ASCED can be best described simply as educational activity. Consideration has been given to how small an educational activity needs to be before it can no longer be separately identified as a unit at the base level of the classification. For the purposes of Level of Education this is relatively clear cut as there is likely to be some form of award as a result of the educational activity. The detailed level of education categories, therefore, generally equate to a course of study. For Field of Education, the practical consideration of the amount of detail worth collecting for general statistical reporting purposes imposes the only real constraint.

The structure of ASCED

ASCED has been designed to classify education according to the two main aspects which are of primary interest to users of statistics on educational provision and attainment. These are level of education, and field of education. To meet the varying needs of users and providers of such statistics, hierarchical classification structures for both level and field of education have been developed.

This approach provides sufficient flexibility to allow for detailed data where practicable, and aggregate data in other circumstances, to be classified to ASCED. The most detailed levels have been designed for use in administrative collections where it is possible to access the most detailed information. It is unlikely to be possible, however, to accurately collect information on the number of completed Master degrees by coursework in, for example, the Census of Population and Housing. In sample surveys, issues of confidentiality and sampling variability mean that, in general, only broader aggregate data can be released.

Statistics on educational activity classified to ASCED can be provided by level of education alone, field of education alone, or by level and field of education together.  Data on level of education and field of education can be cross-classified independently with variables such as age, occupation and income.

Level of education

The concept of level of education used in ASCED is broadly consistent with the concept used in ISCED 1997, which states that “the notion of ‘levels’ of education is taken to be broadly related to gradations of learning experiences...”, and that “the level is related to the degree of complexity of the content of the programmes.”  (UNESCO 1997, p.10). In addition, there was a need for the Level of Education component to be consistent with the AQF to enable all AQF qualifications to be associated with an ASCED category.

For the purposes of ASCED, Level of Education is defined as a function of the quality and quantity of learning involved in an educational activity.

The quality of learning can be considered in terms of three elements:

  • theoretical/vocational learning - where theoretical learning is the understanding of principles, theories, ideas and the relationships between objects; and vocational learning is the ability to competently perform specific tasks which may relate to an occupation or group of occupations;
  • factual learning - the understanding of sets of facts or information; and
  • practical learning - developing the skills necessary for practical or vocational activities.

Higher levels of education are typically characterised by the greater significance of theoretical learning and greater complexity of factual and practical learning.

The quantity of learning is a function of the volume and complexity of the knowledge and skills associated with a particular educational activity. It can be operationalised in terms of the total learning time typically necessary to achieve a certain level of education. This comprises two elements - previous education required to participate in an educational activity and the amount of learning time typically required to complete the educational activity. In many cases individuals may complete a particular learning activity more quickly than the expected or typical time. For example, individuals may be awarded a qualification at a particular level of education through recognition of prior learning or assessment of skills and knowledge, rather than by participating in an educational activity for a specified length of time.

It follows from the above that the relationship between categories in the Level of Education classification should be essentially ordinal. In other words, educational activities at Broad Level 1 Postgraduate Degree should be at a higher level than those at the Broad Level 2 Graduate Diploma and Graduate Certificate and so forth. However, when this idea is applied to the reality of educational provision in Australia, it is not always possible to assert that an ordinal relationship exists among the various levels of education.

This is particularly evident in the case of the relationship between Certificates I-IV in Broad Level 5 Certificate Level, and Secondary Education included in Broad Level 6 Secondary Education. In this instance, the level of education associated with Secondary Education may range from satisfying the entry requirements for admission to a university degree course, to the completion of units in basic literacy, numeracy and life skills. Educational activity in these categories may therefore be of an equal, higher or lower level than Certificates found in Broad Level 5.

In the Level of Education classification, a pragmatic approach is taken towards the distinction and overlap between secondary education and vocational education, by grouping all secondary education in one broad category and Certificates I - IV in another. This approach offers the advantage of allowing poorly described observations in particular statistical collections to be allocated relatively easily to broad groups.

An ordinal relationship between the categories in Broad Level 5 Certificate Level and the categories in Broad Level 6 Secondary Education is not therefore implied. When the classification is used for statistical variables such as Level of Highest Educational Attainment, the case may arise of a person having obtained both a Senior Secondary qualification and a VET certificate. In this case it is necessary to determine which qualification should be reported as the person’s highest level of educational attainment. To allow this to be done consistently in its statistical collections, the ABS has developed a decision table which allows the selection of the most appropriate qualification in these circumstances. For example, if a person has obtained both a Senior Secondary Certificate of Education (Year 12) and a Certificate III in Vehicle Mechanics, it is more useful for most statistical purposes to report the Certificate III as the highest qualification. The decision table will be provided in the documentation for the ABS standard statistical variable, Level of Highest Educational Attainment, which will be released on the ABS website as part of Standards for Statistics on Education and Training.

Criteria for level of education

Level of Education is measured operationally in terms of the following criteria:

  • the theoretical/vocational orientation of the educational activity;
  •  the minimum entry requirements for the educational activity (i.e. the minimum amount of prior education needed to undertake the educational activity at that level); and
  • the programme length or notional duration of the educational activity.
Theoretical/vocational orientation

The theoretical/vocational orientation of an educational activity is a function of theoretical, vocational, factual and practical learning. Education at all levels involves each of these types of learning, and the relative significance of each type varies according to the level of education. For example, at higher levels of education, theoretical learning is generally of primary significance, while practical learning is of primary significance in activities at lower levels of education.

Vocational learning, or competence specific to actual workplace practice, is the key element distinguishing qualifications in the VET sector.

Vocational learning is measured operationally in terms of the vocational element of the educational activity, which encompasses the range of application of knowledge and skills, the scope or context of application, and the level of autonomy.  Some educational activities at higher levels are characterised by vocational learning that is more complex in nature than educational activities at lower levels.

Minimum entry requirements

The minimum entry requirements refer to the minimum level of knowledge, understanding and skill required to successfully undertake an educational activity at that level. Age and experience are sometimes accepted as an indication that a person possesses sufficient knowledge to undertake a particular educational activity successfully. Programmes requiring higher levels of knowledge for entry are considered to be at higher levels of education.

Programme length or notional duration

The programme length or notional duration is the expected length of time necessary to successfully acquire the requisite knowledge and skills. The duration will vary depending on the learning methods, industry involvement and the pathway. Pathways may include work-based training, school or institution-based training, an accumulation of short courses, or recognition of prior learning either wholly or in combination with a training programme.

When educational programmes have similar entry requirements, those requiring greater time for completion are usually considered to be at higher levels of education than shorter programmes. In the case of educational programmes being undertaken part-time, the equivalent full-time duration is considered. The increasing variety of pathways leading to the achievement of particular educational outcomes means that care should be exercised in using programme length or duration in determining the level of a particular educational programme and it should not be used in isolation from the other criteria.

Application of the criteria for level of education

The classification criteria specified above are used to organise individual educational activities into progressively smaller groups in a hierarchy. Broad Level of Education categories are distinguished from each other principally on the basis of theoretical/vocational orientation and entry requirements. Narrow Level of Education categories are distinguished from each other by considering the entry requirements and, where necessary, a stricter application of the theoretical/vocational orientation criterion. For Detailed Level of Education, a stricter application of both the entry requirements and the theoretical/vocational orientation and, where necessary, duration, are used to distinguish the categories. The detailed level of the classification also reflects additional attributes of the educational activity that are required for some statistical collections. These include educational activity distinguished on the basis of research rather than coursework, and the inclusion of categories to allow the identification of professional specialist qualifications, statements of attainment, and bridging and enabling courses.

When applying the criteria of minimum entry requirements and programme length (or notional duration) to an educational activity, it should be remembered that these two criteria can be influenced by whether an individual undertakes the educational activity through, for example, competency-based training or whether the individual received recognition and credit for skills and knowledge they already have, irrespective of how they attained the skills and knowledge. This means that a person may not be required to complete some components of an educational activity or indeed the entire educational activity, if they possess the necessary skills and knowledge through previous education or relevant work/life experiences.

In applying the above criteria to the task of designing and building a Level of Education classification which is practical and useful in the Australian context, a number of additional considerations were taken into account.

The most significant of these was the need for consistency with the existing framework used to describe qualifications in Australia, the AQF. As a result, all educational activities leading to the awarding of an AQF qualification are separately identified in the classification, and the boundaries between categories in the classification are consistent with those used in the AQF. The classification criteria themselves were designed to be compatible with the AQF, but are sufficiently independent to allow them to be applied to educational activities not covered by the AQF such as historical and overseas qualifications. The names used in the ASCED Level of Education classification are consistent with AQF names.

Other important considerations in designing the Level of Education classification include the need for international comparability and the need for ASCED to be used in a variety of statistical and administrative collections.

Field of education

Field of Education is defined as the subject matter of an educational activity. Fields of education are related to each other through the similarity of subject matter, through the broad purpose for which the education is undertaken, and through the theoretical content which underpins the subject matter.

Criteria for field of education

Field of Education is measured operationally in terms of the following criteria:

  • theoretical content;
  • purpose of learning;
  • objects of interest;
  • methods and techniques; and
  • tools and equipment.
Theoretical Content

The theoretical content refers to the ideas and concepts included in an educational activity. It can be defined as that part of the subject matter which links facts together to explain other facts and predict outcomes.

Purpose of Learning

The purpose of learning refers to the ultimate aim of the skills and knowledge gained from an educational activity. An educational activity generally focuses on certain types of problems or sets of tasks. The purpose of undertaking an educational activity is, therefore, to learn to deal with those problems or to perform a set of tasks.

Objects of Interest

The objects of interest are the phenomena, problems or entities studied. They are the “things” to which the student learns to apply the knowledge and skills of the educational activity. They may, for example, be mathematical problems, vehicles requiring repair, people with a particular illness, or ideas and theories on the nature of truth. This element relates primarily to factual learning.

Methods and Techniques

The methods and techniques are the specific procedures for applying the skills and knowledge gained from an educational activity. They may, for example, be steps for solving mathematical problems, techniques for repairing vehicles, or procedures for treating particular ailments.

Tools and Equipment

The tools and equipment are the instruments and implements which an individual learns to use and operate. This element relates primarily to practical learning and is the application of the methods and techniques learned.

Application of the criteria for field of education

The classification criteria specified above are used to organise individual fields of study into progressively smaller groups in a hierarchy. Broad Field of Education categories are distinguished from each other primarily on the basis of the theoretical content and the purpose of learning. Narrow Field of Education categories are distinguished from other narrow fields in the same broad field by considering the objects of interest and, where necessary, a stricter application of the purpose of learning criterion.  Detailed Field of Education categories are distinguished from other detailed fields in the same narrow field on the basis of the methods and techniques, and the tools and equipment, or, where necessary, a stricter application of the criteria used for broad and narrow fields.

When ASCED is applied to educational activities, it should be noted that in many programmes the range of subject matter extends beyond the main field of education and often incorporates units of study from more than one of the broad fields presented in the classification. For example, a course leading to a qualification in Landscape Architecture may also include units of study related to design, botany and management. These units of study would be classified according to the theoretical content. For example, the unit of study “botany” would be classified to the field “010903 Botany”; however the course as a whole would be classified to “040105 Landscape Architecture”.

In designing the Field of Education classification an important consideration was the need for time series analysis of data that, prior to the introduction of ASCED, were collected using a range of classifications of field of education. The following classifications were identified as the major ones for which time series data would be analysed:

  • Australian Bureau of Statistics Classification of Qualifications (ABSCQ);
  • Field of Study Classification of Higher Education Courses (FOSCHEC);
  • Field of Study Classification of Tertiary Education Courses (FOSCTEC);
  • Classification of Higher Education Discipline Groups; and
  • Discipline Group - VET.

Summary information and correspondence tables describing the relationship between ASCED and each of these classifications can be found in the appendices, and are available electronically on the ABS website

Statistical balance

As a general principle, a classification used for the dissemination of statistics should not have categories at the same level in its hierarchy which are too disparate in their population size. This is necessary to allow the classification to be used effectively for the cross-tabulation of aggregate data and the dissemination of data from sample surveys. For example, if some of the twelve ASCED broad fields of education accounted for only 2% or 3% of responses and another accounted for 60% or 70%, it would be difficult to use the classification for balanced analysis. This principle is referred to by the term “statistical balance”.

In ASCED, the statistical balance principle is compromised to some extent by the necessity to develop a classification that can be applied to a range of data items collected by a variety of agencies. It is not possible to ensure statistical balance if the classification spans both school and university education but the statistical collection is confined to data on schools only, or the collection has a particular focus. In these situations collection agencies are encouraged to use only that portion of the classification that is applicable to the collection.

Coding education information

This publication is a reference document intended to provide a detailed account of the content and structure of ASCED and to assist with the interpretation of statistics classified to it. It is not intended that this publication alone be used to code data to ASCED.

Assigning ASCED codes to level and field of education descriptions requires the use of a rule-based system to ensure that it is performed in an accurate, consistent and efficient manner. A computer-assisted coding system has been developed by the ABS for this purpose. This will be available on the Australian Standard Classification of Education (ASCED) and Coder CD-ROM (Cat. no. 1272.0.30.002) together with the content of this printed publication. The contents of this printed publication and details concerning the ASCED Coder can be found on the ABS website at

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