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

3. The data and study population

Two sources of data were used. School achievement data was provided by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority. This data is linked, via the national student number6, to tertiary enrolment data supplied by tertiary education providers to the Ministry of Education. The study population was confined to first year intramural domestic students studying for a bachelors degree at a university. In addition, students were selected if they had gained NCEA level 3 and UE. Students varied between 17 and 20 years of age, and were studying in the years 2006 to 2008. There were 31,706 students in the study population.

The requirement for students in the study population to have UE derives from the fact that the UE standard is not required for entrance to university for older students. Those 20 years and over can be granted special admission to a university, without the usual prerequisites. Since previous academic success is such an important determinant of performance at tertiary level, it was important to ensure that all students could have gained entry to university based on their school qualifications, rather than by special admission. The alternatives—only including students less than 20 years of age—would have limited the number of students enrolling after a gap year.

Scott and Smart (2005) found that extramural students had significantly lower rates of qualification completion, even when controlling for other variables. This is confirmed for students in the present study, where 54 per cent of extramural students passed most of their courses, compared to 76 per cent for intramural students. Extramural students also make up less than 1 percent of students in the data available for this study. For these reasons extramural students are excluded from the study population.

By limiting the study to first-time first-year students, vagaries arising from external factors that influence success at university study are reduced, and a stronger link is maintained between success at school and performance at university. It does not however, provide an indication of the overall success in gaining a qualification, which is arguably the ultimate success factor for this group. In spite of this, first year course pass rates are an important guide to later results (Birch and Miller 2006). At least for younger students, passing most or all of the courses in first year is correlated with continuing to study, and a pre-requisite to gaining the overall qualification. Older students are more likely to be studying part-time, which decreases qualification completion rates.

The data was analysed combining tertiary enrolments for the years 2006 to 2008, as there were no significant differences between these years. Data was available for 2005, but there were significant differences between this year and the others, with 2005 showing generally lower levels of academic performance, especially for students with lower school achievement. That year, 2005, was the first that students who had completed all three years of NCEA study began tertiary education, and the lower academic performance may have been due to this. Certainly, the proportion of students in 2005 who gained UE was significantly lower than the other years in this study; 11 per cent of the 2005 cohort had gained UE, compared to an average for the other three years of 26 per cent. This supports anecdotal evidence which suggests that this first cohort of students was not as aware of the requirements under NCEA that would enable them to enter university. To avoid distortions, students studying at university in 2005 were omitted from the study population.


  1. More information on the national student number can be found on the Ministry of Education website. Accessed: 17 May 2010


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