Participation rates in tertiary education

What We Have Found

The participation rate of New Zealanders in provider-based tertiary education continued to decrease in 2013.

Date Updated: October 2014

Indicator Description

Age-standardised participation rates in tertiary education for the population aged 15 and over.

Why This Is Important

The tertiary education sector is a diverse sector.  Its scope ranges from informal non-assessed community courses in schools through to undergraduate degrees and advanced, research-based postgraduate degrees.  It provides pathways for a diverse range of learners, from school leavers to workers, the unemployed to students from overseas, and to those pursuing an interest or hobby or more social interaction.  It has a diverse range of learning objectives and is influenced by a very diverse set of people and factors.

Changes in participation and achievement in tertiary education are indicators of the extent to which New Zealanders are developing the skills needed for a modern knowledge economy.  New Zealand's lifelong approach to tertiary learning, relatively open access to enrolment, and easy access to student loans, have tended to increase the number of students with a focus on part-time course-based study, and those trying to combine work with study.  This compares to other countries which have higher academic entry requirements, more full-time study, and less access to student support.

How We Are Going

The participation rate of New Zealanders in provider-based tertiary education continued to decrease in 2013. This drop in participation is mainly due to a drop in the participation of lower-level non-degree qualifications.

Following 2005 reviews investigating the quality, relevance and value for money of sub-degree qualifications and education provision at private training establishments, the government has placed greater emphasis on getting more people into higher-level (and consequently, higher value) qualifications. This led to the significant decrease seen in lower-level enrolments since 2005. Participation in degree and higher-level qualifications has remained relatively stable over the same period.

Figure 1: Tertiary education participation rates by broad qualification level 2003-2013

Ethnic Group

Over the 11 year period from 2003 to 2013, age-standardised participation rates in tertiary education have decreased for all ethnic groups except for Pasifika. The decrease was greatest for Māori over this period (4.4 percentage points), followed by Asian (4.1 percentage points) and European/Pākehā (1.9 percentage points). Pasifika had a marginal increase of 0.2 percentage points over the period.

Since 2012, Māori and Pasifika ethnic groupings had slight increases in age-standardised participation rates (0.2 percentage point increases for both). Asian and European/Pākehā groupings had slight decreases (0.4 and 0.2 percentage point drops respectively).

Figure 2: Tertiary education participation rates by ethnic group (age standardised), 2003-2013

Reductions in non-degree qualification participation rates following the reviews into the quality, relevance, cost-effectiveness and provision of these qualifications in 2005 are evident across all ethnic groupings. The decreases in non-degree participation rate over the 11 year period from 2003-2013 were greatest for Māori and Asian ethnic groups; 4.9 and 4.2 percentage points, respectively. All ethnic groupings except Asian had slight increases in degree and higher level qualifications from 2003-2013. Pasifika had the highest increase (1.0 percentage points). The Asian ethnic grouping dropped 0.3 percentage points.

Figure 3: Tertiary education participation rates by ethnic group and broad qualification level (age standardised), 2003-2013


Females have consistently higher rates of participation in tertiary education than Males.

In 2013 Females were 1.4 times more likely to participate in tertiary education than their male counterparts. Both groups show the same general trend of decreasing participation over recent years.

Figure 4: Tertiary education participation rate by gender (age-standardised), 2003-2013


In 2013, participation rates were highest for Bachelor level degrees (3.9%), followed by; Level 1-3 certificates (2.9%), Level 4 certificates (1.6%), Diplomas (1.6%). Honours level (0.7%) Masters level (0.3%) and Doctorate level (0.1%) were the levels of study with the lowest rates of participation.

Participation rates for degree level study and above (i.e. Bachelors, Honours, Masters and Doctorate) have remained relatively stable over the 11 year period from 2003 to 2013. The most movement within degree level study or above over the period was in Honours level study where the age-standardised participation rate increased 0.1 percentage points.

Participation rates for all of the non-degree levels (Level 1-3 certificates, Level 4 certificates and Diplomas (Level 5-7)) decreased from 2003 to 2013, with level 1 to 3 certificates dropping the most (2.0 percentage points) followed by Level 4 Certificates and Diplomas (each dropped 0.6 percentage points over the period).

Figure 5: Tertiary education participation rates by qualification level


Evidence about what works for this indicator can be found in: