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 the forum at, a not for profit emigration forum, with a community of people who are free to discus their experiences of New Zealand without fear of censorship or moderation

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.

7 thoughts on “An Insiders View of the Tertiary Education Sector in New Zealand

  1. Thanks, ohphil, for the link. This a joke, right?

    I checked three internationally recognised, authoritative sources for university rankings: The Times of London, QS, and US News and World Report. The claims in the Borneo Post link are NOT remotely close to factual.

    ##BS from Borneo

    The linked article titled Education a goldmine for New Zealand from the Borneo Post online claims:

    All eight of New Zealand’s universities are currently ranked in the top 3 per cent amongst all universities worldwide. A number of faculties are ranked in the top 100 with some in the top 30.

    Really? According to whom, exactly?

    Let’s check the three internationally-recognized (and possibly the most reputable and respected) sources for world university rankings listed above, shall we?

    ##The Times World Rankings
    The Times:

    The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2014-2015 list the best global universities and are the only international university performance tables to judge world class universities across all of their core missions – teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook. The top universities rankings employ 13 carefully calibrated performance indicators to provide the most comprehensive and balanced comparisons available, which are trusted by students, academics, university leaders, industry and governments.

    The Highest a NZ university ranks is #175 in 2014-2015:

    175 University of Auckland New Zealand

    In 2013-2014 it was #164, so Auckland dropped 11 places in the past year.

    For reputation, a New Zealand university doesn’t make the top 100 list 2014-2015 nor 2013-2014.

    Even funnier:
    The Borneo Post online writes:

    The University of Canterbury’s engineering qualification, ranked 21 worldwide, is ranked higher than engineering courses in renowned American Ivy League universities such as Stamford and Cornell.

    Umm, would that be Stamford University in Bangladesh, perhaps?

    Or do they really want to stick their neck out and claim Canterbury is a better engineering school than Stanford?

    Again, according to the Times’ Top 100 universities for engineering and technology 2013-2014, Stanford University is NUMBER TWO in engineering in the world, and MIT is #1, for both 2013-2014 and 2014-2015.

    Canterbury DOESN’T MAKE THE LIST. Pure kool-aide.

    ###QS World Rankings
    Another reputable source for University rankings is the QS World University Rankings. It’s also an iOS app in case you are interested.

    QS World University Rankings® 2014/15
    ranks NZ Universities as follows

    • University of Auckland #92
    • University of Otago #159
    • University of Canterbury #242
    • University of Victoria #275
    • Massey University #346

    QS World University Rankings by Faculty 2014 – Engineering and Technology

    • MIT #1
    • Stanford #2
    • University of Auckland #66
    • University of Canterbury #161
    • University of Victoria #313
    • University of Otago #335
    • Massey University #368

    But wait, this is kiwi maths which is so advanced, they use imaginary numbers, so 161i > 1i, correct?

    ###US News & World Report World Rankings
    According to US News & World Report, the Best Global Universities in Australia/New Zealand Top 500

    • University of Auckland #173
    • University of Otago #243
    • University of Canterbury #383
    • Massey University #481
    • University of Victoria doesn’t rate

    If the subject Engineering is selected in the US News rankings, NONE of the NZ universities make the top 500 list.

    ###Who needs facts?
    As Joseph Goebbels famously said:

    “The bigger the lie, the more it will be believed.”

    I’m guessing that the Borneo Post Online was eager to please Pita Sharples, the New Zealand Associate Minister for Education [and, ironically, Corrections, as John Smith is bringing lots of publicity to his department] and blow warm air up his trousers, as New Zealand grants up to FOUR whole scholarships every year to Malaysian students.

    It seems that facts are a minor inconvenience for this online newsy source. Here’s one of their recent, responsible journalistic stories they tweeted about:

    Mainstreamedia ‏@mainstreamedia Oct 28 BORNEO POST: Ebola virus spreads to Halloween outfits: WASHINGTON: An online retailer in California is making …

  2. What a colossal pile of steaming shite, who dreams this drivel up? There must be a secret ministry of total bollocks dreaming this crap up and handing it out written on dollar bills.

    • All eight of New Zealand’s universities are currently ranked in the top 3 per cent amongst all universities worldwide. A number of faculties are ranked in the top 100 with some in the top 30.

      It beggars belief! thanks for the link ohphil. There really is some crap out there.

  3. What was my experience with the New Zealand tertiary system? I was a teacher who wanted to teach to an industry standard, so students could actually learn what they needed to know, in order to compete in the constantly evolving, technology driven, highly competitive profession of ______________* (name removed to conceal identity).

    I can say teaching to a high standard created nothing but problems for me. If students were actually pushed to learn all the new technology, and perform to a high professional standard, the ones that were not up to the task (or didn’t bother to come to class) could complain. Any student complaints, no matter how ridiculous, meant I would receive a letter, (written like a legal document) on my desk informing me that there was a formal complaint made by a student against me, an investigation was in order …I was to address the complaint and report “WITH MY ATTORNEY” in the principals office… Students were encouraged by administration to write complaints and they quickly learned it was what they needed to do if they thought they might fail a class, to bully the teacher into passing them. I quickly learned, the only way to survive the classroom was to make assessments as easy as possible and fail proof. Furthermore, to make students happy, I needed to do what all the other teachers were doing for their students— praise their work even when it was mediocre and never give clear critical reviews, only positive remarks, because any clearly critical remark, especially written on an assessment form, could be used as evidence for a formal complaint, leading to my constructive dismissal. So, with that in mind I survived by doing everything to placate students and avoid complaints. I picked up tips from other teachers on how to do this. I observed other teachers doing anything to create happy, passing students, including: writing students thesis papers, or having the “learning support” staff rewrite student papers until they were passing. I observed teachers spending numerous hours after classes making student’s projects for them (projects that were to be assessed by outside moderators or entered into competitions) because students could not master the software and create it themselves. I also, observed the hiring of “student mentors” to make student’s projects for them. I observed teachers forced by administration to come in on their breaks to allow students to resit exams, over and over again, in a desperate attempt to pass them. I observed a teacher being threatened with litigation and dismissal when she pointed out a students paper had been plagiarized.

    So, my experience with tertiary education in short: easy for students, excruciatingly miserable and degrading for the teachers.

  4. This is a horrifying development in NZ education.
    People getting their Masters … without having a previous degree:
    Bond did a year at teachers’ college, with the aim of being a PE teacher, and another on a commerce degree, but chucked it in for a career at the crease.

    Graduation was a long time coming, but proved that perseverance paid off, he said.

    “It’s the one thing I regretted not doing, an undergrad degree. I did bits and bobs but just never finished it, so getting a tertiary qualification is something I’m really proud of and to finally have the degree in your hands is just an awesome feeling.”

    It offends the idea of hard work leading to success, when a person gains a qualification without meeting prerequisites for an undergraduate degree.

    Possibly another one of those “aw shucks” good ole boys …

    The scary thing, is that likely this person will be a manager someday, WITHOUT being properly qualified to supervise the people under him … who will doubtless have had their bonafides scrutinised with a fine-toothed comb, if they didn’t come from New Zealand.

  5. I don’t know about BA degrees but I have an engineering degree from a NZ university. While I was studying my degree course was audited by a UK based professional institution and our B.Eng course was judged to be of equivalent status to a M.Eng degree in the UK. So it’s not all bad in NZ, it probably depends much more on your particular course of study and university etc.

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