Trends in fields of study of bachelors degree graduates in New Zealand

Publication Details

This report looks at trends in the fields of specialisation of bachelors degree graduates in New Zealand over the period 2002 to 2006. It uses newly developed, more detailed, and more reliable information on field of study than has previously been available.

Teacher education, business and management, and studies in human society, sales and marketing, law and nursing were the most common fields of specialisation for domestic bachelors graduates in 2006. The fastest growing areas have been biological sciences, law, communication and media studies, and social work and counselling. The fastest declining areas were information technology, teacher education, education studies, and accountancy.

The report also analyses field of study differences between provider types, domestic and international, male and female, and between different ethnic groups.

Accompanying this report is a large range of new tables on field of study.

 Provider-based enrolments: field of study
 Provider-based equivalent full time students (EFTS): field of study
 Field of specialisation for students gaining qualifications

Author(s): David Scott, Tertiary Sector Performance Analysis and Reporting, Ministry of Education

Date Published: April 2009

1. Introduction

This report looks at recent trends in the fields of the specialisation of bachelors degree graduates in New Zealand.

Knowing what skills and knowledge graduates bring to the labour market is important. It can help improve alignment between the supply of skills and knowledge from the education sector and the demand for these skills from the labour market.

This has been a key focus area of the tertiary education system over the last decade. The current Tertiary Education Strategy,1 states:

“The tertiary education sector in New Zealand delivers a great deal of education and training relevant to the needs of the economy. Quality tertiary education across a range of disciplines develops the broad competencies that New Zealanders need to meet today’s needs and adapt to the future. Tertiary education also has a role in meeting the specific skill needs of particular industry groups. Trades, technical and professional qualifications equip New Zealanders with the specific skills and knowledge needed to enter an occupation.”

The New Zealand Skills Strategy 2008,2also addresses this link between supply and demand of skills. For example, it states:

“In order to support an enhanced relationship between the supply and demand for skills, we need improved labour market and skill information that forms an integrated knowledge base. We need to collaborate better for improved labour market information to inform our decision-making, eg information relating to demographic projections, occupational and sectoral trends, and regional data. Creating a greater understanding of how well we are doing in regards to skills, is a key component to pushing the debate beyond just skills development to greater use of skills.”

While there is increased public interest in influencing skills supply, private motivations also affect a student’s choice of what to study. To a greater or lesser extent, students have to make a choice that balances tuition costs, the burden of future loan repayments and reduced income during study against their interests and aptitudes and chances of getting a good job with a good income in the future. Sometimes the choice of what to study is influenced by knowing that there is a current demand for certain skills and therefore increased prospects for employment in that area. Other times, choice is influenced by knowing the income premiums that certain professions have. However, in many cases, students may choose a field with little regard to the labour market, having a pre-disposed preference or ability for that subject area, or through peer or parental influences.

The tertiary education system is not just a supplier of skills for the domestic labour market. New Zealand has one of the highest rates of participation by international students in the OECD.3 Nearly one in five bachelors graduates in 2006 was an international student. The choice of what to study for international students can be influenced by a different set of factors from those influencing domestic students. Many (but not all) international students will leave New Zealand after study, so may be seeking fields where the skills and credentials they've gained can be readily transferred and recognised outside New Zealand. Because of the usually significant extra tuition costs faced by most international students, the choice of what to study for some is likely to be influenced more by future economic returns, ie which degrees will earn most. English language content is also likely to be a factor for some non-native English language speakers. Consequently, there are marked differences in which fields domestic and international students study. These differences are discussed further in this report. However, because much of the current interest is in domestic labour market supply, most of this report focuses on domestic students only.

Nearly 26,000 people gained a bachelors degree in New Zealand in 2006. The Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, and Bachelor of Commerce degrees remain the three most common qualifications. Over one in three graduates gained one of these degrees. The Bachelor of Business Studies, and the Bachelor of Commerce and Administration were the next most common degrees, and, when considered together with the Bachelor of Commerce, had more graduates than either of the Bachelor of Arts or the Bachelor of Science degrees. The Bachelor of Education, Bachelor of Nursing, and the Bachelor of Laws rounded out the most common groups of bachelors degree qualifications in 2006.

However, inferring popularity from qualification titles alone is not so useful, as different providers often name related degrees differently. For example, Bachelor of Education and Bachelor of Teaching, or Bachelor of Nursing and Bachelor of Health Science (Nursing). Along with the structure and nomenclature of conjoint degrees, this makes grouping and analysis of degrees by title problematic.

Qualification names are also often not a good indicator of the skills and knowledge gained in particular fields, especially for more general degrees such as Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Arts. Over a third of the fields studied by Bachelor of Science graduates are not in the natural and physical sciences, while over one in ten Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Commerce graduates specialised in fields outside of society and culture, and management and commerce respectively. In other cases, such as teaching, and some of the health professions, the qualification name much more closely reflects the student's fields of specialisation.

While field of study is not a direct measure of skills, it is – along with qualification – the best, and perhaps one of the only measures currently available to measure the skills and knowledge that a graduate brings to the labour market. Each qualification, and each course within a qualification, is assigned a field of study using the New Zealand Standard Classification of Education (NZSCED). Course-level field of study data has been collected since 2001, when the New Zealand Standard Classification of Education (NZSCED) was first introduced.4

This report is based on a project which involved the development of new, more detailed, more reliable data on what fields people study than has been available up to now. Existing national information on tertiary education participation and achievement by field of study has been very limited. Earlier Ministry of Education statistics, for example, were based on a field of study coding assigned at the qualification level and so in many cases – especially in multi-year qualifications and at higher levels – failed to accurately capture the main subjects studied in the courses taken as part of that qualification. For instance, all Bachelor of Science graduates were shown as graduates in natural and physical sciences because science degrees are assigned to that broad NZSCED field.  This meant that we weren't able to separate out, among the Bachelor of Science graduates, those in computer science from those in mathematics, or those in biological science from those in physical science.  As a result, these statistics on field of study tended to be reported at the broad level only (12 categories) and had significant shortcomings.

A better picture can be seen by looking at the fields of study for the various courses5 a graduate was enrolled in as part of their qualification and assessing which field or fields represent the greatest 'weight' in the individual graduate's array of choices. The new approach assigns to each graduate a combination of fields that reflects in a more precise way the fields taken, irrespective of the name of the qualification. In broad terms, this new approach defines a field of specialisation as one involving the equivalent of at least two full-time courses (roughly one-third of a full-time, full-year programme) at a level equivalent to the final-year level of the qualification.6

This new approach means we can get a good idea of what each individual graduate brings to the labour market. Field of specialisation can be categorised at either the broad, or the narrow, or the detailed levels of the NZSCED classification. There are 12 categories at the broad level, 71 at the narrow level and 376 at the detailed level.7 Most of this report describes trends at either the broad or the narrow level, although the new underlying data will be able to support analysis at the detailed level. It will also enable accurate reporting where there are multiple specialisations. For example, for 2006 bachelors graduates, 60 percent had one specialisation at the detailed NZSCED level, 33 percent had two, 6 percent had three, and less than one percent had more than three.

For graduates' field of specialisation, the new method currently only permits analysis for the years 2002 to 2006. Data for later years will be added as it becomes available. Therefore the trends presented in this report will not reflect any environmental changes in the last two years, such as any effects from the implementation of recent tertiary sector reforms, or any effects from the current economic recession. Care may therefore be needed when applying these past trends to the present or possible future environments. For participation (ie enrolments and equivalent full-time students) however, data on field of study using this new approach is available for the period 2001 to 2008.

This report provides a descriptive overview of just one part of the tertiary education sector, namely students graduating with a bachelors degree. Its purpose is not to examine in depth the influences behind the trends, or their interaction with providers, or the labour market. The new data will support opportunities for more such research to occur. One such report already underway using this new data will focus on advanced trade, technical and professional qualifications.8

Accompanying the release of this report, statistical tables using this new data replace and extend earlier field of study data on the Ministry of Education’s Education Counts website. These contain tables on participation (enrolments and equivalent full-time students), in addition to those on qualification achievement and also cover other levels of study, in addition to bachelors.


  1. Ministry of Education (2006), TertiaryEducation Strategy 200712 incorporating Statement of Tertiary Education Priorities 2008–10.
  2. Business New Zealand, Council of Trade Unions, Industry Training Federation (2008). New Zealand Skills Strategy 2008 Discussion Paper.
  3. OECD (2008) Education at a Glance 2008 OECD Indicators, Table C3.1, page 366.
  4. has the full NZSCED classification and definitions. Appendix A in this report has the full list of NZSCED codes.
  5. In the terminology used in this report, courses are the components of a qualification.
  6. Section 3 has a fuller discussion of the data and methods used in this project.
  7. See Section 3 and Appendix A for more details on NZSCED. There are two broad fields which had no bachelors degree graduates. These are 'food hospitality and personal services' and 'mixed field programmes'.
  8. Earle (2009 forthcoming) Advanced trade, technical and professional qualifications, trends in supply. Ministry of Education.