Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Tertiary education

by Kerryn Pollock

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.

Universities before 1990


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

Polytechnics before 1990

Technical schools

Technical schools – which were later called polytechnics or institutes of technology – first opened in the 1880s. Run by local education boards, they provided trades training in the evening and were aimed at people who entered the workforce straight after primary school. Students paid fees to attend classes.

Pernicious idleness

The social benefits of education were an important driver of technical schools. In 1888 George Thomson, founder of the Dunedin Technical School, wrote: ‘The most casual observer cannot fail in the evening to be struck with the number of young men and lads who, for lack of better occupation in their spare hours, are chiefly engaged in “killing time”, an occupation pernicious alike to the individual and to the peace and safety of the community. Any plan … which will provide for these young people the means of self-improvement … is worthy of consideration and encouragement.’1

The first technical school was the Wellington School of Design, which opened in 1886. Many others followed and by 1904, 13,700 students were enrolled at technical classes in around 50 towns and cities. The Department of Education oversaw technical schools and controlled the way funds were spent.

Technical high schools

In 1903 the Liberal government introduced technical scholarships that covered the cost of four (and later five) years of technical education. The intention was to encourage pupils to stay at secondary school, but secondary schools concentrated more on academic subjects and were unwilling to offer technical classes.

Technical schools filled the gap. From 1905 new day classes were added for scholarship students and evening classes continued. The schools, which became known as technical high schools or colleges, were a New Zealand innovation. By 1914, 16,602 students attended evening technical classes and 1,839 attended day classes.

Over the next two decades enrolment growth was more significant in the high-school division, though evening and part-time student numbers remained higher. In 1939 there were 12,968 technical high school students, while 17,629 were enrolled at evening classes and part-day classes. The abolition of a proficiency exam (which students had to pass to move from primary to secondary school) in 1936, and the extension of the school leaving age from 14 to 15 in 1944, increased technical high school enrolments.

Post-Second World War developments

From the late 1940s trades apprentices attended part-day and evening courses at technical high schools. Technicians were educated at technical high schools from the mid-1950s and the schools also offered professional part-time courses for organisations such as the New Zealand Society of Accountants. Also, many technical students attended ‘hobby’ classes for personal interest rather than career development.

These developments boosted enrolments, which grew rapidly in the post-war period as demand for more skilled workers increased. In 1959 there were 25,304 technical high school students, and 55,540 people enrolled in part-day, evening and correspondence technical classes.

Technical institutes

In the early 1960s technical high schools in the main centres were separated into secondary schools and tertiary-level technical institutes or polytechnics. Three main factors contributed to this change:

  • demand for technical education outstripped supply
  • technical and secondary schools were offering similar subjects
  • the tertiary sector was seen as the best place for vocational training to occur.

Tech or poly?

The new institutions were either called technical institutes or polytechnics – naming was not standardised. Auckland, Hamilton and Christchurch had technical institutes, while Wellington and Otago had polytechnics. In 1986 the Minister of Education persuaded most of the institutes to use ‘polytechnic’ but the Auckland Technical Institute (which later became Auckland University of Technology) and the Central Institute of Technology in Upper Hutt (later part of WelTec) refused.

The precursor to this was the Technical Correspondence School in Wellington, which was established in 1946 (and renamed the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand in 1990). It provided technical education for apprentices who could not access classes.

By 1970 there were eight stand-alone technical institutes in Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, with 30,560 students enrolled. Outside the main centres, 72,724 people were enrolled part-time in the technical sections of high schools. Around half of these were in hobby classes. New institutes opened in Auckland and Wellington and in smaller centres – the first was in Palmerston North in 1971.

Community colleges

From the mid-1970s new community colleges provided continuing-education courses, many of which were non-vocational or hobby-orientated. After funding for non-vocational courses was cut in the early 1980s, community colleges mainly offered vocational courses and were indistinguishable from technical institutes. In 1990 there were 56,771 students enrolled at 25 technical institutes, polytechnics and community colleges.

  1. Quoted in Ian Dougherty, Bricklayers and mortarboards: a history of New Zealand polytechnics and institutes of technology. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press in association with the Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, 1999, p. 15. Back

Colleges of education before 1990

19th century

In the 19th century many teachers did not receive formal training, but rather learned on the job as ‘pupil-teachers’ apprenticed to schools.

The first teacher-training school opened in Dunedin in 1876. After schooling for children aged 7–13 became compulsory in 1877, trained teachers were in demand. Training schools opened in Canterbury (1877), Wellington (1880) and Auckland (1881). Schools were attached to each, so student teachers could gain experience in the classroom.

Universities provided education courses, though actual teacher training remained the responsibility of training schools. Teaching students also took general university courses.

In 1887, during a period of economic depression, training school grants were withdrawn by the government. The Auckland and Wellington schools closed, while Christchurch and Dunedin remained open. The pupil-teacher system continued.

Training colleges

In the early 1900s George Hogben, the government’s inspector general of schools, turned his attention towards teacher training. From 1904 funding for the Christchurch and Dunedin schools increased and schools (which were now all called training colleges) opened in Wellington and Auckland in 1906. That year 261 students attended training colleges – 195 women and 66 men. Women continued to dominate enrolments.

Gender differences

The number of male training college students never equalled that of women, though the ratio waxed and waned. The Department of Education annual report for 1918 maintained that it was ‘freely acknowledged that women are suitable teachers for three-fourths of the school population’.1 Exactly why was not stated. The report noted with satisfaction that the recent salary and allowance increases for pupil-teachers and college students were followed by increases in male student numbers.

The colleges were governed by local boards of education. Students received paid grants while training and their university fees were paid. This system continued until 1983, when students received the normal tertiary bursary.

Students had to take English and education courses at universities, but this did not work well. Pupil-teachers, who had no post-primary education, struggled and it was hard to make college and university timetables work together. From the 1920s training colleges provided more general educational courses and college students attended university voluntarily. The pupil-teacher system ended in 1926, though students still spent time in classrooms as probationary assistants.


Enrolments grew in the early 1920s – from 680 in 1920 to 1,271 in 1926 – but the economic depression of the early 1930s ended growth. Graduates could not find paid work and the Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin colleges were closed by the government in 1932. Auckland followed in 1934. All the colleges were open again by 1936 and in 1940 enrolments reached 1,460.

The post-Second World War baby boom meant more teachers were required. In 1950 there were 2,684 enrolments. New training colleges opened and by 1964 they peaked at nine – four in Auckland, and one each in Hamilton, Palmerston North, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Trainee teacher numbers also increased, reaching 7,779 by 1975.

No condoms on campus

In 1972 the students’ executive of the Auckland Teachers College wanted to install a condom-vending machine on campus. Even though the college was slowly modernising its attitudes – for instance, women students were allowed to wear trousers instead of skirts and dresses from 1970 – the principal Duncan McGhie could not accept this innovation. He said the college was a government institution and the public expected high standards.

Greater autonomy

In the 1960s training colleges gained some independence. Governance was transferred from the boards of education to college councils. This meant colleges managed their own staff appointments and curriculum. Policy development and student recruitment and selection were still carried out by the Department of Education.

By the late 1970s most training colleges offered shared education degree programmes with universities.

Colleges of education

In the 1980s some training colleges were renamed colleges of education. While teacher training remained their primary focus, the colleges expanded to include social-work training, higher level courses for trained teachers and courses for teaching in other professions, such as nursing.

1980s enrolments

By the 1980s the supply of teaching graduates well exceeded the number of teaching jobs available, and student intakes were cut. Enrolments had dropped to 2,703 in 1985.

Some training colleges closed. The first closure (Ardmore in Auckland) occurred in 1974, as the declining birth rate coupled with a growing tendency for more teachers to stay in the profession reduced demand for new teachers. The North Shore Teachers College (Auckland) closed between 1981 and 1983, and the Auckland Teachers College and the Secondary Teachers College (Auckland) merged in 1986. However, student intakes again increased from the mid-1980s and enrolments grew to reach 5,766 in 1990.

  1. Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1919, E-1, p. 18. Back

Tertiary sector reform from the 1980s


From 1990 polytechnics and colleges of education were placed on an equal footing with universities. Reform began in the late 1980s as part of wider economic and social restructuring undertaken by the government. Major recommendations contained in a 1988 report on the sector commissioned by the government included:

  • that all tertiary institutions should become independent legal entities led by a chief executive and held accountable by individual charters
  • that competition between institutions should be encouraged
  • that universities lose their monopoly over degrees.

These recommendations were accepted and implemented from 1990, when the Education Amendment Act was passed.

New developments

The Education Amendment Act 1990 defined tertiary education institutions as universities, polytechnics, colleges of education, specialist colleges and wānanga (Māori educational institutions).

Under this act these institutions were bulk funded according to a common formula based on the number of equivalent full-time students enrolled. The University Grants Committee, which had distributed government funding to universities, was accordingly abolished. Each institution had to draw up a charter (which described the institution’s role and long-term plans) and was held accountable to the government through this document.

Student fees

From 1989 means-tested student allowances replaced bursaries, which had traditionally covered fees and living costs. Fees increased, and a student loan scheme, through which students could borrow money for fees and living costs, was introduced in 1992. At 30 June 2010, 894,000 people had taken out a student loan. The total amount owed by borrowers was $11.145 billion.


In the 1990s universities became more entrepreneurial as they sought funding from sources other than government. Academics undertook consultancy and research work in the public and private sectors to a greater extent, and many more international students were recruited. Universities dominated the contestable Performance Based Research Fund (PBRF), which linked research funding with research outputs, from its inception in 2004.

Thwarted aspirations

In 1994 Carrington Polytechnic changed its name to Unitec Institute of Technology. The previous year management announced that Carrington was going to apply for university status (degrees had been offered since 1992) and the name change reflected this aspiration. After much to-ing and fro-ing the application was declined by the government in 2005, and Unitec took legal action in response. The High Court said the government acted unlawfully in declining the application but the Court of Appeal upheld the government’s appeal against this decision.


After the passing of the Education Amendment Act 1990 polytechnics, which had been controlled by the Department of Education, gained significant managerial and financial autonomy previously experienced by universities alone. The most significant change for polytechnics was the ability to offer degree courses. By 1997 close to 15,000 polytechnic students were enrolled in almost 100 degree courses.

Polytechnics could also gain university status if certain criteria were met. By 2011 Auckland University of Technology (the Auckland Institute of Technology until 2000) was the only polytechnic to have made that transition.

The competitive environment encouraged mergers. Wellington Polytechnic merged with Massey University in 1999, and other polytechnics merged with each other. By 2011 there were 18 polytechnics, compared to 25 in 1990.

Colleges of education

Colleges of education gained the same autonomy as other tertiary institutions and could also offer degrees. Of all tertiary institutions, the colleges entered merger agreements to the greatest extent – in fact all had merged with universities by 2007.

Paying their way

In 2010, 99,880 international fee-paying students studied in New Zealand. Of them, 49% were at private training establishments (PTEs), which included English-language schools, 20% were at universities, 17% at primary or secondary schools, 12% at polytechnics and 3% at English-language establishments affiliated to universities and high schools. In 2010 universities earned $284 million in international enrolment income, PTEs earned $198 million and polytechnics $86 million.

International students

International students from Asian countries studied at New Zealand tertiary institutions under a special Commonwealth development aid scheme from 1951. International students’ fees were subsidised.

The government first considered charging international students full fees in the late 1970s, but this did not happen until the Education Amendment Act 1990 was passed. From then, international students became a source of revenue for the tertiary sector.


In the 1990s and 2000s university enrolments grew fairly consistently, reaching 168,186 in 2005. Small reductions occurred between 2005 and 2008. After this, growth reoccurred and enrolments reached 179,013 in 2010.

From the mid-1990s polytechnic enrolments followed a downward trend until the early 2000s. Enrolments were 150,181 in 1995 and dipped to 127,685 by 2000. A strong period of growth then occurred and polytechnic enrolments surpassed university enrolments in 2003. Polytechnic enrolments rose to 216,613 in 2007, and then declined to 187,339 in 2010.

College of education enrolments grew in the 1990s to reach 14,393 in 2000. Enrolments remained around this level until 2005, when they dropped by more than half to just under 7,000. All college of education students were absorbed into university rolls by 2007.

New tertiary providers and tertiary management


Wānanga are teaching and research institutions where learning occurs through a Māori method of teaching. Whare wānanga (houses of learning) were traditionally places of education for people of chiefly status.

The first modern wānanga – Te Wānanga-o-Raukawa in Ōtaki – was founded in 1981, but wānanga could not be formally recognised as tertiary institutions until the Education Amendment Act 1990. Te Wānanga-o-Raukawa and Te Wānanga o Aotearoa (founded in 1984) gained this status in 1993, and Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi (founded in 1992) followed in 1997.

In 2000 wānanga enrolments were 4,251. Student numbers grew massively to reach almost 70,000 in the mid-2000s but subsequently dropped, hovering around 42,000 between 2007 and 2010.

What’s in a name?

Under the Education Act 1989 universities must have a number of characteristics, including that the primary focus is on advanced learning leading to the development of intellectual independence, and that teaching is done by people who conduct research. In 2005 Te Wānanga o Aotearoa described itself as the University of New Zealand (a reasonable translation of the Māori name) in domestic and international advertising, but the Department of Education said it should not do this as it did not meet the statutory description of a university, and the translation was dropped. Interestingly, all universities apart from Massey and Auckland University of Technology include ‘wānanga’ in their Māori names.

Private providers

Private training establishments (PTEs) provide tertiary-level education and vocational training in a diverse range of fields. Students are concentrated at certificate and diploma qualification levels.

PTEs were well-established before 1990, but grew in number in the wake of educational policy developments which culminated in the Education Amendment Act 1990. Under this act PTEs are distinct from universities, polytechnics, specialist colleges and wānanga, and are managed differently.

Few PTEs received government funding until 2000. Since then, they have been funded based on the number of equivalent full-time students enrolled. Enrolments were 54,741 in 2000 and climbed to just over 83,000 in 2006. Enrolments dropped from this point but stabilised to around 75,000 at the end of the decade. In 2011 there were 716 PTEs.

Tertiary sector management

The Tertiary Education Commission (established in 2003) manages government funding for tertiary organisations, provides support for those organisations and policy advice to the government. The Ministry of Education also provides policy advice and carries out research and statistical work. The New Zealand Qualifications Authority oversees non-university tertiary qualifications. Universities New Zealand (previously the New Zealand Vice-Chancellors’ Committee) approves all New Zealand university course and degree qualifications.

Total tertiary enrolments in the 2000s

Total tertiary enrolments grew from 331,249 students in 2000 to 501,173 in 2005 and dropped to 466,013 in 2010. That year, polytechnics had 40% of all enrolments, universities 38%, PTEs 16% and wānanga 9% (the total is over 100% because some students enrolled in different sub-sectors in the same year).

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Kerryn Pollock, 'Tertiary education', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 April 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 20 June 2012