How does New Zealand's education system compare? OECD's Education at a Glance 2010

Publication Details

This series "How does New Zealand's education system compare?" draws on the New Zealand results in OECD's Education at a Glance 2008 and summarises the characteristics and performance of New Zealand's education system in an international context. This year's report mostly relates to education in 2008.

Author(s): David Scott and Paul Gini, Ministry of Education.

Date Published: September 2010

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Chapter 3: How many in our population are studying?

More of our under fives are in early childhood education, and more of our adults are in post-secondary education than in other OECD countries, but fewer of our 15 to 19 year-olds are enrolled beyond the first year of upper secondary.

New Zealand has one of the lowest enrolment rates of 15 to 19 year-olds in school education, and the rate of upper-secondary graduation (the production of tertiary-ready school leavers) is also below the OECD average. While the rate at which school leavers transition directly to tertiary study is above the OECD average, a particular characteristic of New Zealand's system is the high delayed entry and participation of adults in tertiary education. Entry to vocational study in particular, is among the highest in the OECD8.

Despite high entry into tertiary study, New Zealand has one of the lowest percentages of entrants who complete their programme. New Zealand has an unusually high proportion of part-time students, particularly at older ages, and at vocational levels, where completion rates are lower. When completion rates for full-time students are compared, New Zealand ranks above average.

With low upper secondary enrolment and graduation, high rates of entry and enrolment at diploma level and above, but very low completion, New Zealand produces what appears to be one of the highest rates of graduates. This rate is boosted by those adults entering and graduating from tertiary education later in adulthood, and by international graduates. When adjusted for these factors, New Zealand probably has about an average graduation rate.

EAG comparisons provide us with a picture of the relationship between how much of our population is entering, participating in, and completing different levels of education, and the rate at which New Zealand is subsequently producing graduates.


At pre-school ages, New Zealand has relatively high participation, 10th highest in the OECD at 91% compared with an OECD average of 72%. This, in part, reflects the universal education focus of our early childhood education system, compared with other countries which separate care only from education programmes – particularly for under threes.  At ages 15 to 19 however, participation in education remains low. The percentage of 15-19 year-olds in education has remained relatively constant around 74% or 75% in recent years, while the OECD average has increased from 77% in 2000 to 82% in 2008. Ranking 26th= out of 30 countries, the percentage of New Zealand 15 to 19 year-olds in education is one of the lowest in the OECD.

Figure 3: Percentage of the population enrolled in education (1995 to 2008)Image of Figure 3: Percentage of the population enrolled in education (1995 to 2008).

  1. See source Table C1.2 in EAG 2010 for full notes.

The low enrolment rate of 15 to 19 year-olds is due to lower retention in schools. The percentage of 16, 17 and 18 year-olds enrolled in school is much lower than the OECD overage, while the percentage of 18 and 19 year-olds in post-school education is higher than the OECD average.

In line with this lower enrolment rate, the rate at which New Zealand is producing young people qualified to enter tertiary study ("upper secondary graduation rate") is also slightly below the OECD average (78% compared with 80% – with New Zealand ranked 15th out of 26 OECD countries). The rate for males is lower at 67% compared to the OECD average for males of 76%, while the rate for females is higher, at 87% compared to the OECD average for females of 84%9. However, more of our 15 to 19 year-olds are in employment or in post-secondary education than is the case for other OECD countries, and more will enter post-secondary study later in life. This 15 to 19 year-old age group is discussed further in chapter 7.

Most of these indicators are based on data for the year 2008. For New Zealand, this reflects a period before the effects of the current economic recession had largely begun to be felt in terms of increased demand for education. These effects are likely to be felt sooner and more significantly by those with lower qualifications, and by younger adults. A special section in EAG 2010 (pages 342-3) discusses the impact of the recession on youth.

While retention in schools may be lower than the OECD average, entry to, and participation in, post-secondary education remains high.  Entry is often later in adulthood. The percentage of 15 to 19 year-olds in post-secondary study is higher than is the case in many other OECD countries. The percentage of 20 to 29 year-olds in education is the 7th highest in the OECD, while at older ages, New Zealand, along with Australia, has one the highest rates of enrolment in education in the OECD. New Zealand's relative performance in this regard is helped by our traditionally open access for mature students, as well as higher levels of adults with few or no school qualifications entering tertiary study via lower-level post-secondary study.

The enrolment rate for 20 to 29 year-olds rose significantly in the 1990s and early 2000s. This rise was greater than the rise in many other OECD countries and our ranking consequently rose from around 16th in 1995 to 6th in 2003. However, since 2003, the enrolment rate for 20 to 29 year-olds has remained about the same, near 30%.

The OECD "entry rate" indicator measures the percentage of a population entering post-secondary education for the first-time. New Zealand traditionally has had one of the highest entry rates. However, OECD traditionally includes international students among those entering tertiary education for the first time. This can have a distorting impact, which can be significant for those countries with high proportions of international students, such as New Zealand and Australia. The rate of entry to degree-level study was 72% (5th= with international students included), but reduced to 58% with international students excluded. Adjusted rates are not provided for many countries, but for many of these countries the impact of international students on their entry rate will be negligible. But even with international students removed, New Zealand has a higher percentage of its population entering tertiary study than the unadjusted OECD average (58% compared with 56%). At doctorate level, the impact of international students is more significant; the entry rate reduces from 2.5% (about the OECD average) to 1.3%.

Entry to diploma level study is particular high in New Zealand. With international students removed, New Zealand (at 38%) is ranked 2nd in terms of entry rates to diploma-level study, when compared to countries with their international students included. The OECD average rate of entry to diploma-level study (with international students included) was 16%.

Entry rates are also affected by limitations in their construction that serve to artificially inflate results for those countries with higher levels of older students entering tertiary study for the first time. New Zealand has the oldest age profile for degree entrants in the OECD. Half of New Zealand students who entered degrees for the first time were aged 20 or over, while 20% of first-time entrants to degrees were aged 33 or above.

Figure 4: Distribution of ages at which students first enter degree study (2008)Image of Figure 4: Distribution of ages at which students first enter degree study (2008).

  1. See source Table A2.3 in EAG 2010 for full notes.

A new indicator in EAG 2010 (A5) compares the contribution of non-formal learning for adults. New Zealand had the second highest rate of 25 to 64 year-olds participating in either formal or non-formal learning at 67%, compared with the OECD average of 41%. Our rate is influenced by a particularly high level of participation in very short types of non-formal learning, such as short seminars and workshops. While we had relatively more adults involved in non-formal learning, on average they spent less time, 47 hours per year, compared with the OECD average of 79 hours.


While entry to, and participation in, post-secondary education is high in New Zealand, relatively fewer people complete their studies. New Zealand ranked 21st= out of 23 countries, in terms of the percentage of first degree entrants who completed their programme, and 15th out of 17 countries  in terms of diploma entrants who completed their programme.

New Zealand's performance is significantly affected by its high proportion of students who study part-time, where we have one of the highest rates in the OECD. New Zealand's degree completion rate increases from 57% to 74% when viewed for full-time students only, and of the 12 countries that can report full-time rates, New Zealand ranks 3rd=, and above the average of 70%. Part-time students not only take longer to complete, but fail to complete their qualification at much higher rates than full-time students. Some part-time students, particularly those at older ages and at diploma level, enrol in one or two papers only. This may suggest, for some at least, that gaining a qualification is not their intention. In OECD completion rate statistics, they are counted as drop-outs, even if they successfully completed all the courses they set out to achieve.

EAG also compares "graduation rate". While this sounds similar to "completion rate" discussed above, it instead measures the rate at which a country is producing new graduates – so is a population-based measure. Historically, this rate has suffered in a similar way to "entry rate" from limitations in its construction that serve to artificially inflate results for those countries with high levels of international students, and higher levels of older students graduating for the first time. While some of our international graduates may stay on and live in New Zealand, many will leave New Zealand after graduation. Graduation rates are based on a "synthetic cohort" which assumes that the number of first-time graduates across different age groups doesn't change over time. This assumption does not hold as well in NZ where more young people are gaining qualifications than was the case in the past, meaning that there will be fewer older first-time graduates in the future.

EAG 2010, however, now provides rates adjusted for both these factors, which show how significant these distortions were for some countries, in particular New Zealand and Australia. Graduates over 30 make up 13 percentage points of the 48% graduation rate, while international students make up 10 percentage points. New Zealand's graduation rate for domestic students aged under 30 is 27% (compared with the traditional unadjusted rate of 48%), while Australia's adjusted rate is 29%.

Not enough countries yet report rates adjusted for their international or older students, so conclusive comparisons are not really possible. However, for many countries the impact of international students on the graduation rate will be negligible. With international students excluded, the graduation rate for New Zealand is about the average OECD rate with international students included.

Figure 5: Tertiary graduation rates (2008)Image of Figure 5: Tertiary graduation rates (2008).

  1. See source Table A3.1 in EAG 2010 for full notes.

The gain in qualifications through overseas-born adults bringing their qualifications is not covered in EAG, but is likely to be a factor in higher average overall levels of attainment in the population, which are discussed in the next section.


  1. See section 7 for more on NZ youth.
  2. In NZ's case, this rate represents the proportion of a 'typical' age cohort that has gained for the first time a qualification that will allow them to enter diploma-level study or above. For school ages this mainly represents NCEA level 2. NZ's rate is boosted by a relatively higher percentage of first-time upper secondary-level-equivalent graduation occurring in post-secondary settings–that is, adults, in particular, women with no school qualification gaining a level 1-3 certificate in a tertiary education organisation.

Sources and further information on this section:

Education at a Glance 2010: OECD Indicators

, C1 (Participation), A2 (Upper  secondary graduation and entry to tertiary), A3 (tertiary graduation, A4  (Tertiary completion rates), A5 (Adults in formal and non-formal leaning).

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For queries about Education at a Glance and INES contact:

David Scott
Manager, OECD Indicators of Education
Evidence, Data & Knowledge 
Ministry of Education
P O Box 1666
Wellington 6140

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