Completion of tertiary education

What We Have Found

Over 120,000 New Zealanders gained a tertiary qualification in 2011, with a third of these being bachelors degrees or above

Date Updated: January 2013

Indicator Description

This indicator looks at the people who start a qualification in a particular year and traces their progress over the succeeding years. The qualification completion rate may be measured any number of years after a group of students has started study. The qualification completion rate used here is the number of students who have successfully completed a qualification within eight years as a percentage of the number of starters.

Why This Is Important

Qualification completion is useful as a measure of the rate at which New Zealanders gain qualifications from the tertiary education system.  Qualification completion also provides an indicator of the effectiveness of the tertiary education system.  However, it should be recognised that there are many factors outside of the tertiary education system that will impact on outcomes, and that concepts of retention and completion as markers of quality need to be read in the context of other indicators.

About 13 percent of students complete more than one qualification while some students may enrol for a qualification, but abandon it once they have met their objectives. This may mean passing only two or three courses.  Many people leave study (in particular, in times of higher employment), with only one or two courses left to complete for their qualification.
To that extent, if a high proportion of students do not complete their qualifications, this can not necessarily be read as a system failure.  Further, lower completion rates in a qualification may not mean that learning is wasted, for example, when course passes are cross-credited to another qualification.

New Zealand's lifelong approach to tertiary learning, relatively open access to enrolment, and easy access to student loans, encourage students with a focus on part-time course-based study, and those trying to combine work with study.  This is borne out in other countries, which have higher academic entry requirements, more full-time study, and less access to student support.  Recent statistics in Britain show that the institutions with the highest drop-out rates were also the ones that generally excelled at attracting students from under-represented groups.  Therefore, completion goals cannot be viewed in isolation from access goals.

How We Are Going

Note: Revised figures are used in this indicator that may differ from those in previous publications

Level 1 to 3 certificates were the most common type of qualification awarded in 2011 (45,921 students), followed by level 4 certificates (24,112), bachelors degrees (22,820) and undergraduate diplomas (17,383).
There was a substantial growth between 2004 and 2011 with the number of students completing level 4 certificates up 65%. The number of domestic students completing bachelors degrees has remained relatively constant over this period but from 2010 to 2011 increased by over a 2,200: an increase of around 11%.

The number of domestic students completing honours degrees and postgraduate certificates/diplomas increased by 32% since 2004, to over 8,400 in 2011 while the completion of masters degrees had increased by 14% over the same period.  The number of doctorate completions increased by 27% since 2004, with 696 doctorate completions in 2011.

Figure 1: Number of domestic students completing a qualification by level

Figure 2: Number of domestic students completing a qualification by level


Full-time students were more likely to complete their qualification, even after 8 years of study.  In 2011, full-time completion rate for bachelors degrees was 79%, compared to 48% for part-time students.

There are two groups of part-time students: those with the intention of completing a qualification, and those enrolling with the intention of passing only one or two courses.  Current data collections do not allow us to distinguish these two types; therefore the latter group is counted as not having completed even if they successfully pass every course they enrol in.

Women were more likely to complete their qualification within 8 years than men at bachelors and lower qualification levels.  At postgraduate level,  gender differences were very small, and favoured males.

Figure 3: Eight-year qualification completion rates for domestic students who completed a qualification in 2011 by level and study type

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) formerly published a table of higher education qualification completion rates.  For tertiary-type A study in 2008 (which includes study at bachelors level and above, excluding doctorates), New Zealand had a completion rate of 57% compared with 70% for the OECD mean, 80% for Australia and 81% for the UK.

To allow better comparison it is important to note that at last count (in 2008) New Zealand had one of the highest levels of part- time study amongst OECD countries.  New Zealand came across more favourably with a completion rate of 74% for full-time students compared to the OECD average of 70% for full-time students.


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