Skip to content
RMIT University Library - Learning Lab

University structure


University structure

Navigating any space is easier when you understand how it's organised. Learn more about the way universities are structured and the types of study programs that are available, as well as the role of research at a university.

Organisation of university activities

A university is generally led by the Vice-Chancellor and governed by the council and the academic board. Each university has their own values, policies, and legislation developed according to the national standards, which they obey and respect.

Universities are comprised of academic bodies and operational and strategic bodies. Academic bodies deliver the university’s major teaching, learning and research services. Tertiary institutions have different names for academic bodies, which may include college, faculty, portfolio. These academic bodies are named and categorised based on the study program that they offer. A college or faculty generally comprises several schools or departments. All courses and programs are coordinated by the school, which is part of the college/faculty. Students may not need to know which college or school they’re part of, though it may help when they’re engaging with university services.

Tertiary institutions facilitate teaching, learning, research, and community engagement across a wide range of disciplines. Teaching and learning are conducted via different levels of study programs offered to students via national and international university campuses and in some cases from a fully online service.

Study programs

Tertiary institutions offer a wide range of study programs ranging from vocational education and higher education to postgraduate education in many disciplines.

Pre-university study

Some tertiary institutions provide pre-university study programs for domestic and international students to prepare them for tertiary studies or students who require extra support to get into a university-level program or who are keen to brush up their skills before starting at the university level. These programs may include:

Vocational study

Many Australian universities offer a wide variety of vocational education or TAFE (technical and further education) programs, such as certificate programs, diplomas and advanced diplomas. Most of these programs help you to get into the degree of your interest such as associate degrees and bachelor degrees.

Undergraduate study

Associate degrees, bachelor degrees and honours degrees offered by tertiary education institutes are considered undergraduate degrees. Most Australian universities offer undergraduate degree programs in STEM, business, law, education, social science, etc. Check out the web page of your chosen university for specific admission details.

Associate degrees

Associate degrees are two-year programs that combine both theoretical and practical knowledge, with a significant focus on work-based learning. This is a stand-alone qualification to enter the workforce as well as a pathway to enter a relevant bachelor degree. Universities offer associate degrees in many areas of study, including applied science, engineering science, graphic design, professional writing and editing, health sciences, screen and media production and more.

Bachelor degrees

Bachelor degrees are usually three-year study programs with a focus on both theory and practice. However, some professional degrees can take up to four or five years, depending on the study discipline. These degrees are open to both domestic and international students.

Honours degree

The honours degree is a one-year specialised study that is generally undertaken upon the completion of the bachelor degree. Typically, students are required to have a high GPA from a bachelor to enter an honours degree. With an honours degree, you specialise in a specific area of your discipline. This degree is comprised of a larger portion of research or placement and coursework components. Honours degrees generally prepare you for masters by research or doctoral degree. You can undertake an honours degree in a different university than your bachelor degree. However, entry requirements can vary in different universities.

Postgraduate studies by coursework

A postgraduate program is generally any study that you undertake upon completion of your bachelor degree. Occasionally with extensive industry experience, you might be eligible to undertake a postgraduate program without a bachelor degree. Many tertiary education institutes offer different levels of postgraduate programs: graduate certificates, graduate diplomas and masters. In some cases, graduate certificates and diplomas can provide a pathway to enter a masters degree.

Research degrees

Research degrees are master and doctoral degrees across many disciplines. These programs are comprehensive research conducted independently under the guidance of an expert academic, which is called a supervisor. You can conduct research as a thesis model or project model, depending on the discipline of study. Masters by research degrees are two years of full-time work, and PhDs are four years of full-time work.

Online courses

Some universities offer fully online short courses, undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in many study areas. The core study areas include artificial intelligence, design, marketing, business and finance, health, science and engineering, data analytics and information technology.

Recognised prior learning

Recognised prior learning (also known as Credit) is the recognition of previous study or learning that can be counted towards a current program.

This can reduce the number of units (courses) needed to complete your program, which means the length and cost of your studies are reduced and you don’t need to spend time learning things you already know.

You can use a variety of documentation to apply for RPL such as records of completed training or a letter from an employer.


Research and innovation are a major part of an university culture. Research conducted at a tertiary education level is primarily focused on solving problems encountered nationally and globally in industry, government and community by applying new knowledge and innovation. Researchers in a university collaborate with the industry, government, business sector, hospitals, various research and academic institutions nationally and internationally to conduct impactful research. A university has some staff entirely dedicated to research. Research-focused staff include higher degrees by research students, research assistants, postdoctoral researchers, senior research fellows and research team leaders. Most lecturers also conduct research together with their teaching role. Your lecturer might be a researcher as well.

Images by kiattisak, .shock and Monkey Business on Adobe Stock