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Participation in tertiary education


The proportion of the population aged 15 years and over enrolled at any time during the year in formal tertiary education leading to a recognised New Zealand qualification.

Tertiary education providers include public institutions (universities, polytechnics, wānanga) and private tertiary education providers receiving government funding or approval and registered with the New Zealand Qualifications Authority. Qualifications range from certificates and diplomas to bachelor and post-graduate degrees. Domestic students only are included. Students who were enrolled at more than one qualification level have been counted in each level.


The acquisition of a tertiary qualification provides individuals with additional skills and knowledge to participate in society and in the economy.

Current level and trends

During 2008, 421,000 people aged 15 years and over were enrolled in formal tertiary education, a decline from 444,000 people in 2007. The age-standardised tertiary education participation rate was 12.5 per cent in 2008, down from 13.3 per cent in the previous year.

Between 1998 and 2005, there was a rapid increase in tertiary education enrolments: the age-standardised participation rate rose from 8.4 per cent in 1998 to a peak of 14.0 per cent in 2005. Enrolments for certificate-level qualifications have largely driven trends in tertiary participation over the last decade. Participation increased from 2.5 per cent in 1998 to 6.4 per cent in 2005 for Levels 1–3 certificate courses and from 0.5 per cent to 2.2 per cent for Level 4 certificate courses. By 2008, participation at these levels had fallen to 4.9 per cent and 1.9 per cent, respectively. In all other levels of qualification, participation rates remained relatively unchanged between 2005 and 2008. Against the overall fall in participation between 2007 and 2008, the rate of participation in bachelor’s degree courses increased slightly, from 3.4 per cent to 3.5 per cent.

Figure K3.1 Age-standardised tertiary education participation rate, by sex, 1994–2008

Figure K3.1 Age-standardised tertiary education participation rate, by sex, 1994–2008

Source: Ministry of Education

Sex differences

Females are more likely than males to participate in tertiary study: in 2008, the age-standardised participation rate was 13.6 per cent for females and 11.2 per cent for males. The sex difference widened over the decade to 2004, but narrowed somewhat between 2005 and 2008, as females experienced a greater decline in participation than males over that period. In 2008, females were much more likely than males to be studying for bachelor’s degrees (4.2 per cent and 2.7 per cent, respectively) but there was little or no sex difference in enrolments for other qualifications.

Age differences

Tertiary education participation is highest among 18–19 year olds (45.7 per cent in 2008), followed by 20–24 year olds (32.9 per cent). Between 2005 and 2008, the tertiary participation rate increased slightly for 18–19 year olds, remained steady for 20–24 year olds and declined for all other age groups, particularly for people aged 25–39 years.

Figure K3.2 Tertiary education participation rate, by age, 1999–2008

Figure K3.2 Tertiary education participation rate, by age, 1999–2008

Source: Ministry of Education
Note: In the under 18 years age group, the figure for 2005 reflects a large number of enrolments in Levels 1–3 certificate courses at institutes of technology or polytechnics in that year

Ethnic differences

In 2008, the age-standardised tertiary education participation rate was highest for Māori at 16.9 per cent. Participation rates were similar for the Asian ethnic group (12.4 per cent), Pacific peoples (11.8 per cent) and Europeans (11.4 per cent).

The Māori age-standardised tertiary education participation rate climbed rapidly from 7.2 per cent in 1998 to just under 20 per cent between 2003 and 2005. All ethnic groups experienced an increase in tertiary education participation in the first half of the 2000s and a fall in participation between 2005 and 2008, with Māori and Asian ethnic groups experiencing the greatest fall. Almost all of the decline in Māori enrolments between 2005 and 2008 was due to fewer Māori taking certificate-level courses.

In the peak tertiary education age group, 18–19 years, the Asian and European ethnic groups had considerably higher participation rates than Māori and Pacific peoples in 2008. In the 20–24 years age group the differences between the ethnic groups were much smaller. At older ages, Māori tertiary education participation rates were considerably higher than those of other ethnic groups.

Table K3.1 Tertiary education participation rates (%), by age and ethnic group, 2008

Age group European Māori Pacific peoples
Asian Total
Under 18 years 8.5 12.3 7.6 3.5 9.1
18–19 years 45.6 34.0 37.2 47.2 45.7
20–24 years 33.5 28.1 26.8 29.2 32.9
25-39 years 12.5 21.1 15.3 12.8 14.4
40+ years 5.1 14.3 8.0 8.9 6.5

Source: Ministry of Education

In 2008, the Asian ethnic group had the highest rate of participation in bachelor’s degree courses (4.9 per cent), followed by Europeans (3.3 per cent), Pacific peoples (2.9 per cent) and Māori (2.8 per cent). Māori females (3.6 per cent) and Pacific females (3.8 per cent) were more likely than European males (2.6 per cent) to be enrolled in bachelor’s degree courses.

International comparison

There are no robust measures of tertiary education participation across OECD countries. Some indication of New Zealand’s relative standing can be gained from the proportion of people enrolled in education at various ages. In 2006, 29 per cent of 20–29 year olds (the age group that is usually only enrolled in tertiary education) were enrolled in education, placing New Zealand ninth out of 29 countries. This was above the OECD median of 25 per cent. The New Zealand rate was higher than those of the United Kingdom (17 per cent), the United States (23 per cent) and Canada (26 per cent), but below the rate for Australia (33 per cent).50 At older ages, New Zealand’s participation in education is much higher than the OECD median (nearly three times higher at ages 30–39 years, eight times higher at age 40 years and over).

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