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Australia is a large and bountiful country in the Southern Hemisphere, and with nearly 3 million square miles of land, it’s the world’s sixth largest country by total land area.  The country comprises the entire mainland of the Australian continent, along with Tasmania and a number of islands located in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.  The west side of the country consists of miles of beautiful coastline, to the southeast is the country of New Zealand and to its north are the countries of Papa New Guinea, Indonesia and East Timor.  It is also very close to the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia, all of which are located northeast of mainland Australia.
 
Prior to European settlement in the region during the 1700s, Australia had been inhabited by indigenous Australian natives for at least 40,000 years; natives who belonged to nearly 300 distinct language groups.  In 1770, nearly 175 years after Australia was discovered by the Dutch, it was claimed by Great Britain and setup as several separate colonies, which it would remain until January of 1901, when the six colonies claimed independence and formed the Commonwealth of Australia.
 
Today Australia is a thriving federal parliamentary democracy comprised of six states and a number of territories.  Since the end of World War II, the population of Australia has more than quadrupled. Currently, the bulk of its population, nearly 23 million as of the last census, dwells in the country’s eastern states, a region that is now highly urbanized and modern.  Australia boasts the world’s 13th largest economy, and the 5th highest per capita income.
 
For nearly two hundred years, the majority of settlers, and later immigrants, of Australia derived from the British Isles, and because of this, the ethnic makeup of Australia is very diverse and consists primarily of people of British and Irish descent.  As of the 2006 census, nearly 38 percent of the population claimed Australian ancestry, followed closely by British at 32 percent, and smaller groups who claimed Irish (9%), Scottish (8%), Italian (4%), German (4%), Chinese (3%) or Greek (2%) lineage. 
 
Because of this wide diversity in Australia it is one of the only major countries without an official language.  However, English is the most commonly used language and considered the de fact language in all official matters of the state, including printed materials and the language of instruction in Australian public schools.  Christianity is the most commonly practiced religion, particularly the Anglican and Roman Catholic faiths.
 
The ethnic diversity in Australia is particularly evident in the country’s culture, which seems to effortlessly blend the traditions of the indigenous natives with those of European settlers.  The country invests heavily in the arts, especially the performance arts, which are sponsored through funding by the Australian Council.  Australians are also very enthusiastic about their sports teams, particularly those in cricket, rugby and Australian Rules football.  The cuisine is very Southern European, and Australian wine is produced in 60 distinct production areas, mainly in the south of the country, and enjoyed by people around the world.
 
Education in Australia
 
Governance of education in Australia is not a federal matter, but is instead overseen by the six individual states and territories.  As a result, educational rules and policies tend to differ slightly from state to state.  In all states and territories, children are required by law to attend school from age 5 to at least 16, and in certain states, students ages 16 and 17 must either remain in school until they have earned a diploma (or the equivalent) or enter a vocational program or apprenticeship to gain skills and training for a specific career.
 
Australia is very modern and a major player on the world economic stage, and as so, education is highly valued and plays a chief role in the country.  Records show that the adult literacy rate is 99 percent, and Australian students consistently rank in the top five in the “Program for International Student Assessment,” a rubric that tests and then ranks students in terms of academic knowledge and achievement in over 30 developed countries.
 
Like countries in North America and Europe, primary and secondary schools make up the first two stages of education in Australia.  Each state develops their own curriculum, but generally, subjects such as mathematics, science, language (English and Foreign language), technology, history, geography, art and sport are taught at every school.  While in some areas only the first two years of secondary school are compulsory, records indicate that over 80 percent of Australian students in these districts remain in school to complete their secondary education.
 
Higher education in Australia is primarily conducted at its 37 state-funded universities and 2 private institutions, although several specialty institutions of higher education also exist and are geared towards specific career fields.  Students at Australian universities can earn undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate degrees in most major academic fields, ranging from education, business and agriculture to engineering, medicine and law.  There is also a very popular state-run vocational program, where individuals can become certified in a trade.  Approximately 60 percent of Australian adults have earned either vocational or tertiary qualifications.

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