Academic performance of first-year bachelors students at university

Publication Details

The study considered a population of first-year bachelors-degree students at university, who had all achieved the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) level 3 and attained the University Entrance standard.

Author(s): Ralf Engler, Senior Research Analyst, Tertiary Sector Performance Analysis and Report [Ministry of Education]

Date Published: May 2010

1. Introduction

The funding of tertiary education in New Zealand has, since 1998, been broadly based on student numbers: the more students a tertiary institution enrolled, the more funding it received. There are other sources of funding, tied to research excellence (for universities) and other criteria, but the bulk of the funding is based on student numbers. In 2008, in response to rising student numbers, the government imposed caps on how many students an institution could enrol. This was done to place limits on the overall level of tertiary funding, and provide certainty to the tertiary education budget. At that time, student numbers at most institutions were below their maximum limits.

In 2009, the New Zealand government foreshadowed further changes to tertiary funding. Specifically, from 2012, some funding will be tied to successful student outcomes, including the proportion of students progressing to higher levels of study, and subsequent course and qualification completions (Tertiary Education Commission 2009). This change in the funding criteria will invariably focus institutions’ attention on their students’ performance.

The recent global recession saw demand for tertiary education increase substantially (Smart 2009, Ministry of Education 2009). In 2009, many institutions reached, and some exceeded, their student enrolment caps. In addition to not being funded for students above the caps, the problem for the institutions is that many students will not pass their courses or complete their qualifications, placing the funding linked to student outcomes at risk. The intention of linking funding with student outcomes is to encourage institutions to support learning as a way of improving the course and qualification completion rates.

In addition to providing learning support, some institutions may limit enrolments of potentially poor performing students. There have been calls by the New Zealand Vice-Chancellors’ Committee to review university entrance standards (University World News 2009), and individual university vice-chancellors have been reported as saying that tougher enrolment criteria are needed, to increase the enrolments of students who are motivated, or those who are likely to succeed (The Press 2010)3. The difficulty is in predicting which students are the more motivated and the ones more likely to succeed.

The literature shows that the best predictor of tertiary performance is a student’s academic success at school. However, as this report will show, school achievement is not always a reliable predictor of tertiary performance. While using academic success at school as an indicator of tertiary performance will, in the main, select potentially higher achieving students, it will discriminate against some minority groups, and potentially deprive the universities of some of their better-performing students.

It is important then to consider what factors influence students’ performance in tertiary education. Previous New Zealand studies have considered this question, focussing on qualification completions (Scott 2004, Scott and Smart 2005, Scott 2009a) and course completions for Māori students (Earle 2007, 2008), school students (Scott 2008), and students generally (Scott 2006, 2009a). There is also an extensive body of international research considering this question.

This present study builds on the earlier New Zealand studies, using extra years of data, and includes a method of reporting ethnicity little used in educational research. It follows an earlier study (Engler 2010) which considered the factors affecting the progression from school to bachelors-level study. This present report considers this same cohort of students, and explores the factors affecting the academic success of school leavers in their first year of bachelors-level study at university.

The people in the study population were those intramural students, born between 1985 and 1991, who were in their first year of bachelors-degree study at university over the period 2006 to 2008. The students had all attained the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) level 3 and achieved the UE standard, and were studying for their degrees for the first time. By restricting the focus to students with both level 3 and UE meant that the results were not confounded by students who did not do well at school, but nevertheless, after turning 20 years of age, were eligible to enter university through ‘special admission’, without the pre-requisite school achievement.

The measure of university performance used in this study is the proportion of students who passed most (more than 75 per cent) of their courses in their first year of study. This measure has been used in other studies (Earle 2007, 2008). The results are similar if the criterion used was for a student to have passed 100 per cent of their first year courses. Measuring qualification completion is also desirable. However, the current data does not provide sufficient years of study to do this. First-year course completion provides a good proxy for eventual degree completion.

The previous study by Engler (2010) using this study population found significant differences in the likelihood of undertaking bachelors-level study for students from different backgrounds. In particular, a higher likelihood of progressing to bachelors-level study was associated with higher school achievement, but this was not the case for sole-Pasifika students, or Māori students generally from low-decile schools. The particular focus of this current research was to see if these factors continued to have an influence on educational outcomes, once the decision to start tertiary study had been made. While not every student wants, or is able, to complete their first year at university, if a particular group is disproportionately failing to complete, this is cause for concern.


  1. The New Zealand Qualifications Authority has recently initiated a review of the University Entrance (UE) standard.