Fees Free tertiary education: the first year, initial statistics
(2018 data updated as at August 2019)
Statistics relating to the first year of fees-free tertiary education, including demographic data, student loan borrowing, course completions and study load.
This page provides information on the first year of the Fees Free Policy (2018). Because there is only one year of data available for fees-free, comparisons have been made either with non-fees-free students in the same year (2018) or with similar groups of past students, such as 18-19 year olds.
Key findings (updated)
- In 2018 there were approximately 47,000 unique fees-free students and trainees, including 4,755 (10%) trainees in industry training.
- Of the approximately 42,145 fees-free students in provider-based study in 2018, the majority (56%) were enrolled at universities, 68% were of European ethnicity, 69% were aged 18-19 years and 59% were women.
- Of the approximately 4,755 fees-free industry training learners, 99% were in apprenticeships and only 1% were trainees, 75% were of European ethnicity, 43% were aged 18-19 years and 93% were men.
- There was some evidence that the fees-free policy helped to stabilise the trend of declining tertiary enrolments in recent years. In 2018, the amount of study (equivalent full-time students or EFTS) at SAC Level 3 and above was -0.3% less than in 2017. This was smaller than the forecast decrease (-1.7%). However, it was within the margin of error of the forecast.
- The Fees Free Policy reduced both the number of students borrowing for fees and the amount borrowed for fees in 2018 compared with 2017: the number of students borrowing for fees decreased by 31,600 (-20%) and the amount borrowed for fees decreased by $194.2 million.
- Fees-free students aged 18-19 years had similar course completion rates to non-fees-free students also aged 18-19 years at Level 5-7 and degree level, and higher course completion rates at Levels 3 and 4.
- There was an increase in study load of around 9% for fees-free students aged 18-19 years compared with all students aged 18-19 years (in 2018). This represents an increase of around 10 credits of additional study per student, on average.
Since 1 January 2018, fees-free tertiary education and training has been available to students with little or no prior tertiary study. Alongside this, increases to student support (both student allowances and loan entitlements) were implemented.
A monitoring framework has been developed to assess how well the Fees Free Policy objectives are being met across three broad goals:
- improving access to and affordability of tertiary education and training
- improving educational outcomes
- fiscal control and cost effectiveness.
It is recognised that impacts of the Fees Free Policy won’t all happen immediately. Some intended benefits might take several years to be seen, as changes in the cost of tertiary education affect learners’ plans and any extra participation flows through to increased attainment and movements from education to the labour market. However, after the first year of fees-free tertiary education it is possible to assess some of the indicators in the framework, including:
- demographic trends in participation
- student debt
- course completions
- study load.
We have provided some comparisons of fees-free and non-fees-free students. However, due to the eligibility criteria for fees-free study, the group of students accessing fees-free have specific demographic characteristics which differ from non-fees-free tertiary students. When comparing these two groups of students we need to keep in mind these demographic and study patterns.
Who participated in fees-free study in 2018?
In 2018, there were approximately 47,000 unique fees-free students and trainees. This included 4,755 trainees in industry training benefiting from fees-free study.
Provider-based fees-free study
Approximately 37,140 equivalent full-time students (EFTS) were fees-free in 2018, accounting for around 18% of total EFTS at SAC (Student Achievement Component) Level 3 and above and 17% of EFTS at all levels.
Of the 42,145 fees-free students enrolled in provider-based formal study, 23,535 (56%) were enrolled at universities, 12,110 (29%) at institutes of technology and polytechnics (ITPs), and 6,960 at private training establishments (PTEs, 16%). Less than one percent of fees-free students were enrolled at wānanga.
By comparison, the distribution of non-fees-free students by sub-sector was: universities (45%), ITPs (35%), PTEs (12%) and wānanga (11%), see Figure 1. The low fees-free enrolments at wānanga may be due to learners being older and having prior tertiary study that makes them ineligible for fees-free study. Also many sub-degree programmes at wānanga did not attract fees prior to the introduction of the fees-free policy.
Figure 1. Distribution of fees-free and non-fees-free students in provider-based study by sub-sector, 2018
Table 1 shows the demographic characteristics of fees-free students in provider-based study.
The gender-distribution of participation in tertiary education was not impacted by the Fees Free Policy. Well over half of fees-free students were women (24,715 students, 59%), compared with 17,430 (41%) men. This is similar to the proportion of women (60%) and men (40%) for non-fees free students.
Most fees-free students were aged 18-19 years (28,980 learners, 69%), 11,760 (28%) were aged 20 years and over and only 1,400 (3%) were aged under 18 years. By comparison, the distribution of non-fees-free students by age group was: over 20 years (93%), aged 18-19 years (6%) and aged under 18 years (1%).
The majority of fees-free students were European (28,705 students, 68%), 7,220 (17%) were Māori, 4,925 (12%) were Pacific peoples and 6,185 (15%) were Asian. By comparison, the distribution of non-fees-free students by ethnicity was: Europeans (63%), Māori (21%), Pacific peoples (9%) and Asian (15%).
Most fees-free students were enrolled in degree-level study (53%) and 44% were enrolled in non-degree-level (Levels 3-7). This compares with 42% of non-fees free students who were enrolled in degree-level study and 45% in non-degree-level study.
Under 18 years
20 years and over
Non-degree study (Levels 3-7)
Postgraduate (levels 8-9)
Institutes of technology and polytechnics
Private training establishments
Fees-free industry training learners (new)
In 2018, 4,755 industry training learners had their programme and assessment fees paid through the Fees Free Policy.
Almost all industry training fees-free learners (99%) were in apprenticeship training programmes. The remaining learners (1%) were enrolled in traineeship programmes.
Over half of the industry training fees-free learners were aged under 20 years, including 43% who were aged 18-19 years. Another 22% were aged between 20 and 24 years, while the remaining 26% were aged over 25 years.
On average industry training fees-free learners were younger than non-fees-free learners in equivalent programmes, over half of whom were aged over 25 years.
The majority (94%) of industry training fees-free learners in 2018 were male. Around 300 (6.3%) fees-free learners were women, compared to 14% of non-fees-free learners in equivalent programmes.
A high proportion of fees-free learners were European (75%), while 17% were Māori, a similar proportion to non-fees-free learners in equivalent programmes (16% of non-fees-free learners in equivalent programmes reported Māori ethnicity). Learners reporting Pacific Peoples ethnicity made up 5.8% of fees-free learners, similar to the proportion of non-fees-free learners in equivalent programmes (6.2%).
Just over half (57%) of fees-free learners were in building programmes, compared to just over a third (37%) of non-fees-free learners in equivalent programmes. Other popular fields included Electrical and Electronic Engineering and Technology (12% of frees free learners), Automotive Engineering and Technology (10% of fees-free learners), and Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and Technology (7.7%).
- Read more data on fees-free participation. MS Excel 31kB
What happened to participation in tertiary education in 2018? (updated)
Enrolments (EFTS) for SAC Level 3 and above decreased by 0.3% from 2017 to 2018 (from 204,030 to 203,380) compared with a forecast decrease of 1.7%. The forecast is based on demographic and labour market data, with no adjustments for policy changes, such as Fees Free. We cannot attribute the smaller decrease than forecast to the Fees Free Policy, or to the increase in student support, as it is within the forecast’s margin of error.
In 2018, 28,980 (69%) of fees-free students in provider-based study were 18-19 year-olds, giving a tertiary participation rate of 22% for this age group. We do not have a baseline participation rate for this group for the years before the Fees Free Policy was introduced. In future, when there is more than one year of fees-free data available we will be able to calculate participation rates from year to year.
For all students aged 18-19 years, the tertiary participation rate was 36.2% in 2018, a slight decrease from 36.7% in 2017.
For Māori students aged 18-19 years, the tertiary participation rate decreased from 36.1% in 2017 to 34.1% in 2018.
For Pacific Peoples students aged 18-19 years, the tertiary participation rate was 40.1% in 2017 and 39.6% in 2018.
The lower participation rate for fees-free students aged 18-19 years compared to all students aged 18-19 years relates to the fees-free student group being limited to first-time students studying in fees-free eligible courses. The rate for all students aged 18-19 years also includes students in their second year of study and may include courses that are not eligible for fees-free study. However, the denominator used to calculate the participation rates (the population aged 18-19 years) is the same for both groups.
What happened with student loan borrowing in 2018?
The total amount borrowed for student loans decreased by $115.0 million (-7.4%) compared with 2017:
- fees borrowing was down by $194.2 million;
- course-related costs borrowing was down by $8.7 million;
- living costs borrowing increased by $87.9 million (due to the maximum student loan living cost entitlement increasing by $50 a week from 1 January 2018).
The number of students borrowing for fees decreased by 31,600 (-20.0%). Overall borrower numbers reduced by 15,400 (-9.1%).
The reduction in fees borrowing can primarily be attributed to the introduction of the Fees Free Policy, but it will also have been impacted by reductions in enrolments.
Further data on student support (loans and allowances) can be found on the Ministry of Social Development’s StudyLink statistics page here. The Student Loan Scheme Annual Report will be published in late 2019 and will be available here.
Did more students complete their courses in 2018?
A difference in course completion rates was observed at lower levels of study (Level 3 and 4 certificates) for fees-free students compared with non-fees-free students in 2018 (Table 2). To take into account the age concentration of fees-free students, we have compared them to other non-fees-free students that are 18-19 years. However, the eligibility criteria for fees-free means that the 18-19 year olds not eligible for fees-free are likely to have undertaken tertiary study previously, or are enrolled in Youth Guarantee fees-free Level 3 study. They may also be are more likely to have left school prior to 18 years, with lower school qualifications.
Similar patterns in course completion rates were observed for Māori and Pacific students (higher course completion rates for fees-free students compared with non-fees-free students, at lower levels of study).
Fees-free students (%)
Non-fees-free students (%)
Level 3 certificates
Level 4 certificates
Level 5-7 certificates and diplomas
An alternative way to compare course completion rates is to compare the rates for 18-19 year olds in 2017 and 2018 (Table 3). The only difference between 2017 and 2018 is for study at Level 3 (75% compared with 74%), however it should be noted that Youth Guarantee would be included in this level.
Level 3 certificates
Level 4 certificates
Level 5-7 certificates and diplomas
We would not expect to see a fees-free effect for qualification completions because the majority of students completing their qualifications in 2018 would have started their study in the years prior to the introduction of the policy.
Even for short (less than one year) qualifications at Level 3-4, it is too soon to analyse qualification completion rates. For example, in monitoring tertiary education providers’ education performance indicators, qualification completion rates for Level 1-3 qualifications are assessed two years after the starting year. Part-time study is more common at lower levels of study and therefore some people may take more than one year to complete their qualification.
Were study loads influenced by fees-free study?
Students appear to have taken advantage of the fees-free policy by choosing to take on a higher study load, as there is no in-year EFTS cap for fees-free consumption. Fees-free students are still subject to the $12,000 cap for fees-free payments. Despite this increase in study load, lower course completion rates for fees-free students were not observed
In the five previous years (2013-2017), the average annual study load for all domestic students has been relatively stable at around 0.66 EFTS per student. For students aged 18-19 years the figure has been relatively stable at around 0.86 EFTS per student.
The average annual study load for fees-free students aged 18-19 years was 0.94 EFTS per student. This represents an increase of around 9% or 10 credits of additional study per fees-free student, on average.
However, study load patterns can vary between study levels. For example, for fees-free students aged 18-19 years, studying at degree-level, the average annual study load was 0.97 EFTS per student. This compares with a study load of 0.95 EFTS per student for 18-19 year olds studying at degree-level in 2017. For fees-free students studying at non-degree levels, the average annual study load was 0.79 EFTS per student. This compares with a study load of 0.63 EFTS per student for 18-19 year olds studying at non-degree level in 2017.
The Fees Free Policy will continue to be monitored against the framework and further information will be published on Education Counts as data becomes available.
- We will provide additional information on trainees in industry training when data becomes available later in the year.
- Formal study refers to learning that is organised, intentional, institutionalised (but not just provider-based) and nationally recognised. For this report, only provider-based formal study of greater than 0.03 EFTS (more than one week’s full-time duration) is counted.
- How does the Ministry of Education calculate tertiary qualification completion rates?