Story: Tertiary education

Until 1990 universities and polytechnics were clearly demarcated – universities were academic institutions and could award degrees, while polytechnics taught vocational and trade courses. Teachers trained at separate colleges. After education reforms in the 1990s the two competed for the same students, and other training institutions such as Māori wānanga also expanded.

Story by Kerryn Pollock
Main image: Bachelor of health science (nursing) graduates from the Auckland Institute of Technology, 1993

Story summary

All images & media in this story

Tertiary education is the level of education after high school. It includes universities, polytechnics and wānanga.

Universities before 1990

The University of Otago, founded in 1869, was New Zealand’s first university. Soon after the government created the University of New Zealand. Otago became a college of the University of New Zealand, and other colleges were founded in Canterbury (1873), Auckland (1893) and Wellington (1899).

Lincoln began as Canterbury College’s School of Agriculture in 1878, and Massey Agricultural College in Palmerston North was created when Auckland and Wellington’s agriculture programmes merged in 1927.

In 1961 the University of New Zealand was dissolved and the colleges became universities. The University of Waikato, in Hamilton, opened in 1964.

At first most students were part-time, and worked when not studying. In 1962 a grant that covered fees and boarding costs was introduced, and this encouraged students to study full-time.

Universities were the only institutions that could grant degrees, and their teaching staff also had to do academic research.

Polytechnics before 1990

Technical schools – which were later called polytechnics or institutes of technology – first opened in the 1880s to provide vocational (work-related) training. At first they held classes in the evening, and were aimed at people who entered the workforce straight after primary school.

In 1905 day classes were added, and some schools became technical high schools. In the 1960s some technical high schools were split into secondary schools and tertiary-level polytechnics or technical institutes.

Colleges of education before 1990

At first teachers learned on the job, as pupil-teachers. New Zealand’s first teacher training school opened in Dunedin in 1876, with others following in Christchurch (1877), Wellington (1880) and Auckland (1881). Trainee teachers generally also took some education courses at university. There have always been more women training as teachers than men.

Education reform since 1990

In 1990 the government made many changes to the tertiary education sector. Tertiary institutions became more independent and competition between them was encouraged. Institutions other than universities became able to grant degrees.

Some polytechnics merged with universities or with each other. All teachers’ colleges merged with universities – the last in 2007.

Student fees increased and student loans were introduced. Numbers of students at universities and polytechnics increased overall.


Wānanga are Māori teaching and research institutions. In traditional Māori society whare wānanga (houses of learning) were places of higher education. The first modern wānanga – Te Wānanga-o-Raukawa in Ōtaki – was founded in 1981. Others followed, including Te Wānanga o Aotearoa (founded in 1984).

Private education providers

Universities and polytechnics are publicly owned, but there are also private institutions that provide tertiary-level training.

How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Tertiary education', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 20 June 2012