Migrants Tale – An Insiders View of the Tertiary Education Sector in New Zealand

Continuing in our popular series of Migrants Tales, first hand accounts of the migrant experience of New Zealand taken from places around the net.

For more Migrants Tales please click on the link in the header above.

This account was first published on a closed expat forum.

This is one migrant’s experience; his opinion about the quality of New Zealand’s tertiary education sector, as told from the view point of an educator. It was written in response to this question

New Zealand is pushing itself as a quality destination for international students again because the Canterbury rebuild offered a lot of career opportunities.

Just wondering, for those of you who’ve had experience with the New Zealand tertiary education system, what were your impressions of it? If you were given another choice, would you still choose to study in New Zealand?


Well, it depends a lot on what you study. If you’re interested in study in the arts, humanities, or law, forget it. The arts and humanities are under constant threat, MUCH more so than elsewhere in the world.

I did my degrees in the US and EU, and I’ve taught in higher education in the US and NZ, and let me tell you: In terms of rigor the US and Europe blow New Zealand (AND Australia) completely out of the water.

The degrees here are three years in duration, followed by an “honours” year. The “honours” year is comparable to what I did in the third year of my B.A. at a less-than-renowned regional American university.

Essentially, there are several factors that bring NZ education down:

1. Staff are constantly under threat of losing their jobs in NZ if students complain. This is not possible in the US or EU because professors have actual lifetime appointments and cannot be fired for exercising academic freedom. Part of that academic freedom is the freedom to EVALUATE students, which means giving them grades they might not like, and standing by them. Department heads/administrators are VERY unlikely to go over an instructor’s head and change a grade for a student, which is the norm in NZ. An A+ in NZ is 100-85%. A+ in the US or EU, however, does not exist. It would be considered better than perfect, and no one is perfect. You also have to remember that teaching staff are encouraged to pass along international students without much fuss, even when they’ve been caught plagiarizing repeatedly. Grade inflation is rampant, and employers overseas are catching on to it. The NZ bachelors degree just doesn’t really mean anything to anyone.

2. The universities don’t allow the teaching staff the freedom to structure their courses and assignments in a way that allows them to ensure that their students know what they need to know. The administrations regulate how “hard” assignments are allowed to be and how many assignments an instructor is allowed to give. Instructors also can’t assign too much reading, and everything — EVERYTHING — is taught from a course reader and Power Point. In the third year of my American BA, I was reading up to 8 COMPLETE NOVELS per WEEK for 5-6 different upper-level courses. Unheard of in New Zealand. An English major in NZ *might* read 2-3 novels PER SEMESTER.

3. If you do a BA in NZ, and then want to do an MA/PhD overseas, you’ll be at a distinct disadvantage because you will have absolutely no real background in the subject you want to study. You also will have no training in academic writing, and you won’t have any of the necessary research skills. If you do a MA in NZ and want to do a PhD overseas, same story. The BA(Hons) in NZ is basically half of what I did in my 3rd and 4th years as a regular undergrad in the US. The rigor of “Hons” coursework is ANYTHING but postgraduate-level. It’s American/European third-year level, just with less of it.

Basically, New Zealand has a heavily corporatized structure of tertiary education. This should come as no surprise: the tertiary sector is a massive cash cow for the government. International students tend to bear the brunt of budget shortfalls in the form of massive fee hikes. In return, students can effectively BUY their degrees.

For some of the internationally-regulated professions, such as medicine (but not law), it could be a viable option. Or if you’re interested in studying some of the niche areas, such as Antarctic Studies or forestry, New Zealand is a good place to be.

So if you want a VERY easy BA degree with “honours,” and don’t want to have to put much time or effort into becoming proficient at anything, then New Zealand is the place to be. You’ll pay dearly for it as an international student, but you’re essentially guaranteed a degree regardless of your performance or ability.


9 thoughts on “Migrants Tale – An Insiders View of the Tertiary Education Sector in New Zealand

  1. It is hard to tell the differences between stoners who post comments on Internet forums and blogs, and Kiwis. Their spelling is so bad. I have had children in school systems in both countries, and the Kiwis cut some serious corners with their education. Education statistics are only as good as the tool they measure them with. If you use a magnifying class only on an area that you can “make look good” for P.R. purposes, then that is all the world will see. That’s what is going on. Never saw a country hide its reality so well. And I have lived in a few of them.

  2. Lets talk about some facts here, and i quote from this publication by nz ministry of education

    “New Zealand has one of the lowest reported higher education qualification completion rates in the OECD, significantly below Australia. Why do so many New Zealand students not complete their qualification? This paper looks behind some of the numbers in an attempt to better understand and assess New Zealand’s performance compared with Australia and internationally. It looks, for example, at the impact of part-time and partial qualification study on completion rates. New Zealand has the highest reported level of part-time study in the OECD, and one in eight bachelor’s-degree students in New Zealand pass every subject they’ve enrolled in, yet have not completed their degree after five years. What does this tell us about intentions and about how we should gauge success?”

    So, another stats tells us that only14.2 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher. So that essentially means that rest of them are barely ‘high school pass’. And all of these figures have been obtained by the NZ government published stats.

    Now, deducing from the above an inference could be made that ‘NZers are largely uneducated bunch or morons, masquerading as intellectuals with know it all attitude, in the the kiwi workplaces, as CEO’s, CFO’s and Marketing Managers and what not’.

    So, here is the surprise, and this a quite a big one that despite them being at the bottom of the heap, they can still retain a ninth position amongst “The most educated countries in the world”. Something is not right there, or it may be just another marketing plot, a ‘campaign’, a program to fool the outside world, of their superior prowesses which comes when you live in Island nation, cut off from the ‘real world’ , inbreeding.

    Seems like that like to ‘DIY’ even the stats, to create a ‘facade of falsehood’ from their ‘stark naked realities’.

    • Here is the link to their marketing gimmick, where they are claiming:

      Pct. population with tertiary education: 40.6% (How?, when only 14% of them have a degree)
      Average annual growth rate (2000-2011): 2.9% (13th lowest) – bullshit, just look at the dropout rates to put this in context

      Tertiary education spending per student: $10,582 (15th lowest) Yeah, but still the morons couldn’t pass out a simple course in Algebra or Economics.


  3. Well if you’re at one of the lower-tiered universities in NZ this is probably true. Exactly as if you attended the overwhelming majority of “colleges” or universities in the US–except for perhaps 100 out of tens of thousands of US schools. NZ has 4 million people and precisely one internationally ranked university: Auckland. The US has 350 million people and a couple of hundred internationally ranked universities. Rather proportional.

    For an ostensive academic, using your sample of one (yourself) to generalise about higher education in 3 different countries is…lame scholarship. I experienced much of what you describe here when I taught in Australia; haven’t seen it in NZ or Canada.

    • I’m not sure if the original article writer visits here, but:
      Since you’re talking about the University of Auckland, I thought this would be of interest:
      Even those with good grades from recognised schools struggle to find employment, yet the universities continue to pump them out; even AUT offers law, despite its graduates not getting shortlisted at most firms. An LLB from AUT is as useful as a chocolate hammer.

      ooh, and don’t forget, Asians and some foreigners (not all) pay out of their own money, 4 – 5x the fees of domestic students 🙂

      P.S. I know someone at AUT doing her Master’s in Law.
      She works at ANZ as a “Service Consultant”. Granted though – you cannot practice Law UNTIL you have been admitted to the Bar AND have 3 years’ working experience.

  4. They’re correct on most points except:
    1. The Humanities are pretty devoid of intellectual curiosity, except where you have to argue your cases;
    2. University is probably the most valuable qualification you can gain (with some of the dodgy things happening at polytechnics one has to seriously think twice)
    3. However, even in some of the fields using numbers (especially accounting), be fully aware that some grades were granted because students “spoke to lecturers” (e.g. buttering up for marks). Granted, this may not seem significant in the short term, but I would definitely say for the classes with PLENTY of students, it seems so impressive that this one person gets stellar grades. The reverse, a person getting decent grades in a field where over 90% failed … they are seen as “just average”. But I suppose this happens all over the world.
    4. No matter where you go, you may wind up working under a manager with just an MBA and no first degree, who will try to sabotage you. A highly specialised skill may be a “ticket to a higher pay”, but it may also require significant investment in specialised equipment, and therefore just a different form of slavery … since if you have no skills beyond your speciality, and have only a few employers to turn to … they dictate the prices.
    5. Even Masters’ candidates may be dodgy, in the sense of there being 2 types: Master’s by thesis (which is peer-critiqued and published) and Master’s by coursework (guess which one is easier).
    6. A Master’s or a Ph.D that a candidate PAYS for … isn’t the same as one which is awarded (for having excellent Bachelor’s results).
    7. Some people forge their qualifications. Which is where a university education in NZ excels, as the NAMES of people graduating from such institutions, can be searched for on the Internet. If you can’t find a person’s (recent) graduation magazine or their name mentioned in conjunction with a qualification … BEWARE.
    8. Double-majors are NOT double-degrees. In my opinion double-majors are halves of 2 degrees (based on what I’ve seen, it seems some of the tougher papers are circumvented or deferred).
    9. The Arts (exception of Law – and even then, was that a double-major, ahahaha) seem to have a ridiculously easy graduation curve.
    10. Not all university faculties have work-placement arrangements (heh, such information seems to be sketchy for international students to find).
    11. Internationals may be “warned” that if they take a courseload commensurate with their ability to understand the materials presented that their immigration status may be threatened. (Take the papers we tell you to, or get kicked out!)
    12. Arts people are pretty punctual on finishing their degrees in 3 years. Sciences, many do not. Seems like Sciences are harder (possible exception: double major). There is a graduation-rate study done for this about NZ that measured across 10 years, but I don’t have the link anymore. It was around 30% (hence, fully 1 in 3 people of the initial survey had a degree (which takes 3 years) AFTER 10 years.

    • Missed adding this one:
      One of the primary reasons to get a Science-based education in NZ universities is:
      your assignments get returned, marked.
      1. In many other countries (my experience was Asia), an arbitrary mark is attached with no right of appeal … and the person who re-marks the paper despite an unusually low grade, is the same person who marked it the first time,
      2. the exam was not set by a panel, but by a single lecturer,
      3. that lecturer may play favourites with students, marking down those who ask questions or want their answer scripts back,
      4. the management of those universities (not in NZ) will defame and downgrade those students asking for a transparent assessment process.

      Dishonest assessment is one of the reasons why there is this idea that “many graduates are not “work-ready” “.
      Along with employers who want to hire 1 person to do the job of many others.
      Some lecturers live off the idea that allowing through unqualified students makes them look good. Those same universities hiring those lecturers get the mark of “their teaching is so good, look at how many graduate!”
      In Asia, parents complain when too many students are failed. Some universities and institutions (have) back(ed) down, and relax standards.

      Here’s the curveball:
      You can only have a world-class education ….
      When you have a world-class count of FAILURES. (300 people entering the course and 300 passing? You have GOT to be kidding me.)
      Because that means that the course is rigourous (it was for me, in NZ — and I’m grateful for that).

      it becomes easy for people to try to bribe their way to success or be dishonestly assessed to gain the upper hand. Which is why it’s necessary to not only look at grades, but also syllabus and assignments together with verified records.
      A person passing a course where 90% failed …
      is used to a lot harder work than a person passing a course where 90% passed.

Comments are closed.