Story: Tertiary education

Page 1. Universities before 1990

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The University of Otago – New Zealand’s first university – was founded by the Otago Provincial Council in 1869 and opened for teaching in 1871. After lobbying by prominent Canterbury men, who favoured a colonial university rather than separate provincial universities, the government passed legislation to create the University of New Zealand in 1870.

The university was an overarching entity to which local colleges (predecessors of today’s universities) were affiliated. Governed by a senate, the University of New Zealand conducted examinations and granted degrees, while teaching was carried out by the colleges. This system was criticised by reformers throughout the early 20th century, but remained in place until 1961.

Strong words

Provincial rivalries were evident during debates over the university question in the 1870s, as reflected in the language used by some of the players. In 1872 Henry Tancred of Canterbury described the University of Otago as a ‘complete sham’.1 During a parliamentary debate later that year, the University of New Zealand was on the receiving end. George O’Rorke, member for Onehunga and advocate of an independent university in Auckland, called it ‘that houseless and homeless University that, like a ghost, haunted the house [of parliament] session by session,’ while Alexander Bathgate of Dunedin rather intemperately described it as a ‘wretched abortion’.2

Canterbury College became the first affiliated college in 1873. It was followed by the University of Otago (which could no longer grant degrees of its own, but kept its title) in 1874, Auckland University College (1883) and Victoria University College (1899). Entry numbers were not restricted, though prospective students had to pass an entrance examination. In 1900, 805 students (including 305 women) were enrolled at the colleges. Early academic staff mainly came from overseas.

In an effort to ensure high standards and fairness, and for reasons of prestige, examination papers were marked in the UK from 1879 until the beginning of the Second World War in 1939.

Special schools

The universities provided students with a liberal education intended to broaden the mind, but special schools within the universities – medicine at Otago for instance – provided some graduates with particular employment prospects. The colleges competed to establish special schools and there was some duplication; for example both Auckland and Canterbury had schools of engineering, and Auckland and Otago had schools of mining.

Two universities developed from special schools. Lincoln University began life as Canterbury University College’s School of Agriculture in 1878 (and became a separate institution, Canterbury Agricultural College, in 1896), and Massey Agricultural College (later Massey University) was created when the agricultural schools of Auckland University College and Victoria University College were amalgamated at Palmerston North in 1927.

Early reforms

Because students paid to attend university, most enrolled part-time and worked when not studying. Limited bursaries were introduced in 1907, but this pattern continued. In 1925, of the 3,850 university students, 54% were part-time and 32% full-time. The remaining 14% were teachers’ college students.

Academics had little control over degree content and staff appointments, and few opportunities to conduct research. After lobbying by academics the Board of Studies (comprised of academics) was set up in 1915 to advise the governing senate on courses of study and exams. This was superseded by the Academic Board (1927–61).

University funding increased under the first Labour government (1935–49). In 1948 the University Grants Committee was established. It received block grants from the government and distributed funds to the colleges largely to spend as they saw fit.

Professional students

Part-time study necessarily meant that degrees took a long time to complete. Between 1953 and 1959, 115 students completed the bachelor of commerce degree at Victoria University College. Only one student completed it within 3 years and the average was 8.5 years. One student took 26 years.


Continued enrolment growth put pressure on the existing university system. Enrolments grew from 5,101 in 1935 to 11,515 in 1950. This led to the establishment in 1959 of a committee to investigate entry requirements, enrolment patterns, staff salaries, staff-to-student ratios and the university structure.

The government implemented the committee’s extensive recommendations. The most significant related to structure: in 1961 the University of New Zealand was dissolved and the colleges became independent universities. Canterbury Agricultural College was the exception – it was renamed Lincoln College and was affiliated to Canterbury University until 1990.

The University of Waikato, in Hamilton, opened in 1964.


A comprehensive bursary system, which largely covered fees and boarding costs, was established in 1962. This encouraged more full-time enrolments. At the University of Auckland, for example, 36% of students were enrolled full-time in 1962, compared to 72% in 1969. Total enrolments at all universities grew from 16,524 in 1960 to 78,919 in 1990.

  1. Quoted in J. C. Beaglehole, The University of New Zealand: an historical study. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research, 1937, p. 82. Back
  2. Quoted in The University of New Zealand, p. 87. Back
How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Tertiary education - Universities before 1990', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 November 2018)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 20 Jun 2012