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Participation in tertiary education


The proportion of the population aged 15 years and over enrolled at any time during the year in formal tertiary education leading to a recognised New Zealand qualification.

Tertiary education providers include public institutions (universities, polytechnics, wānanga) and private tertiary education providers receiving government funding or approval and registered with the New Zealand Qualifications Authority. Qualifications range from certificates and diplomas to bachelor and postgraduate degrees. Domestic students only are included. Students enrolled at more than one qualification level have been counted in each level.


The acquisition of a tertiary qualification provides individuals with additional skills and knowledge to participate in society and in the economy.

Current level and trends

During 2009, 426,000 people aged 15 years and over were enrolled in formal tertiary education, an increase from 421,000 people in 2008. The age-standardised tertiary education participation rate was 12.4 percent in 2009, about the same as the rate in the previous year (12.5 percent).

Between 1998 and 2005, there was a rapid increase in tertiary education enrolments: the age-standardised participation rate rose from 8.4 percent in 1998 to a peak of 14.0 percent in 2005. Enrolments for certificate-level qualifications have largely driven trends in tertiary participation over the last decade. Participation increased from 2.5 percent in 1998 to 6.2 percent in 2005 for Levels 1–3 certificate courses and from 0.5 percent to 2.3 percent for Level 4 certificate courses. By 2009, participation at these levels had fallen to 4.4 percent and 2.0 percent, respectively. In all other levels of qualification, participation rates remained relatively unchanged between 2005 and 2009. Against the overall fall in participation between 2005 and 2009, the rate of participation in bachelor’s degree courses increased slightly, from 3.4 percent to 3.6 percent.

Figure K3.1 Age-standardised tertiary education participation rate, by sex, 1994–2009

Figure K3.1 Age-standardised tertiary education participation rate, by sex, 1994–2009

Source: Ministry of Education

Sex differences

Females are more likely than males to participate in tertiary study: in 2009, the age-standardised participation rate was 13.7 percent for females and 11.0 percent for males. The sex difference widened over the decade to 2004, narrowed somewhat between 2005 and 2007 as participation fell more for females than for males over that period, then widened slightly from 2007 to 2009 as participation fell more for males. In 2009, females were much more likely than males to be studying for bachelor’s degrees (4.4 percent and 2.8 percent, respectively) but there was little or no sex difference in enrolments for certificate level qualifications, the most numerous group.

Age differences

Tertiary education participation is highest among 18–19 year olds (47.7 percent in 2009), followed by 20–24 year olds (34.0 percent). Between 2005 and 2008, the participation rate increased slightly for 18–19 year olds, remained steady for 20–24 year olds and declined for all other age groups. In 2009, there was a rise in the rate for 18–19 year olds and 20–24 year olds, perhaps in response to reduced job opportunities for youth following the March 2008 to March 2009 recession.

Figure K3.2 Tertiary education participation rate, by age group, 1999–2009

Figure K3.2 Tertiary education participation rate, by age group, 1999–2009

Source: Ministry of Education
Note: In the under 18 years age group, the figure for 2005 reflects a large number of enrolments in Levels 1–3 certificate courses at institutes of technology or polytechnics in that year.

Ethnic differences

In 2009, the age-standardised tertiary education participation rate was highest for Māori at 17.1 percent. Participation rates were similar for the Asian ethnic group (12.5 percent), Pacific peoples (12.1 percent) and Europeans (11.4 percent).

The Māori age-standardised tertiary education participation rate climbed rapidly from 7.2 percent in 1998 to just under 20 percent between 2003 and 2005. All ethnic groups experienced an increase in tertiary education participation in the first half of the 2000s and a fall in participation between 2005 and 2008, with Māori and Asian ethnic groups experiencing the greatest fall. For Māori, the fall was mainly due to fewer Māori taking certificate-level courses. Between 2008 and 2009, there was an increase in participation at bachelor’s degree level for all ethnic groups.

In the peak tertiary education age group, 18–19 years, the Asian and European ethnic groups had considerably higher participation rates than Māori and Pacific peoples in 2009. In the 20–24 years age group the differences between the ethnic groups were much smaller. At older ages, Māori tertiary education participation rates were considerably higher than those of other ethnic groups.

Table K3.1 Tertiary education participation rates (%), by age and ethnic group, 2009

Age group (years) European Māori Pacific peoples Asian Total
Under 18 7.9 11.8 7.8 3.3 8.5
18–19 47.4 36.5 42.4 50.2 47.7
20–24 34.9 30.1 28.8 32.1 34.0
25–39 12.7 21.7 15.8 13.2 14.6
40+ 4.7 14.1 7.6 8.2 6.1

Source: Ministry of Education

In 2009, the Asian ethnic group had the highest age-standardised rate of participation in bachelor’s degree courses (5.0 percent), followed by Europeans (3.5 percent), Māori (3.1 percent), and Pacific peoples (3.0 percent). Pacific females (4.0 percent) and Māori females (3.9 percent) were more likely than European males (2.7 percent) to be enrolled in bachelor’s degree courses.

International comparison

There are no robust measures of tertiary education participation across OECD countries. Some indication of New Zealand’s relative standing can be gained from the proportion of people enrolled in education at various ages. In 2007, 30 percent of 20–29 year olds (the age group usually enrolled only in tertiary education) were enrolled in education, placing New Zealand seventh out of 29 countries. This was above the OECD median of 24 percent. The New Zealand rate was higher than those of the United Kingdom (17 percent), Ireland (21 percent), the United States (23 percent) and Canada (26 percent), but below the rate for Australia (33 percent).53

At older ages, New Zealand’s rate of enrolment in education is much higher than the OECD median (1.6 times higher at ages 30–39 years, twice as high at age 40 years and over).

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