How can tertiary education deliver better value to the economy?

Publication Details

This paper asks how tertiary education can deliver better value to the economy. It is based on a presentation given at the New Zealand conference of the Association of Tertiary Education Management in Auckland in July 2010.

Author(s): David Earle, Tertiary Sector Performance Analysis and Reporting Division [Ministry of Education]

Date Published: December 2010

New Zealand's tertiary education and skill attainment

New Zealand sits near the top of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries in terms of tertiary attainment and shows continuing improvement in tertiary educational achievement. In 2008, 40% of New Zealanders aged 25 to 64 had achieved a tertiary qualification at diploma level or above. This was well above the OECD average of 28%.

As shown in Figure 1 below, almost half of New Zealanders aged 25 to 35 years have a tertiary qualification, placing New Zealand near the top of OECD countries, and ahead of Australia and the Scandinavian countries. Comparing this rate with the rate for 55- to 64-year-olds provides a picture of the generational change in education achievement. About a third of New Zealanders aged 55 to 64 have a tertiary qualification. This suggests improvements in tertiary education achievement over time.

Figure 1:  Proportion of 25 to 34 year olds and 55 to 64 year olds with a tertiary qualification

Image of Figure 1:  Proportion of 25 to 34 year olds and 55 to 64 year olds with a tertiary qualification.

Source: OECD (2010b)
Note: Tertiary qualification is defined as diploma and above for purposes of international comparison.

The 2006 Adult Literacy and Life Skills (ALL) survey provides a more direct measure of adult skills. It directly assessed the literacy and numeracy skills of a sample of New Zealanders aged 15 to 64. Literacy and numeracy skills were assessed across four domains. One of the domains, document literacy, provides a measure of the ability of people to use and interpret a mixture of text and graphic material. Skills are reported from the ALL survey in five levels. 1

Figure 2 below shows the proportion of the population with moderate to high document literacy in the countries that participated in the ALL survey. Level 3 is “deemed as a minimum for persons to understand and use information contained in the increasingly difficult texts and tasks that characterise the emerging knowledge society and information economy” (Statistics Canada and OECD, 2005).

In the 25- to 54-year-old population, New Zealand has about 60% of the population with high literacy skills. The New Zealand age profile is notable for evenness of the distribution across age groups. In the 55- to 65-year-old population, New Zealand has the highest proportion of people with high document literacy skills of any of the participating countries.

Norway, Canada and Australia have a higher proportion of people aged 25 to 35 with high literacy skills than New Zealand. The New Zealand results in this age group are affected by the large proportion of recent immigrants with English as an additional language, as discussed later in the paper. The United States has lower skills across all age groups.

Figure 2:  Proportion of 26 to 45 year olds and 46 to 65 year olds with moderate to high document literacy

Image of Figure 2:  Proportion of 26 to 45 year olds and 46 to 65 year olds with moderate to high document literacy.

Sources: Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey 2003-2006 International Dataset and Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008).
Note: Moderate to high document literacy is defined as level 3 and above


  1. See Satherley, Lawes and Sok (2008) for further information on the survey.