Adult and community education

You don’t have to fork out big bucks to enjoy adult education.

Adult female student raising hand in class

Every year, thousands of Kiwis use adult education classes to learn job skills or find a new hobby.

From beginner woodworking at your local high school to applying calculus with Harvard professors, you can upskill on just about anything.

What options are available?

Adult Community Education (ACE) is the umbrella term for learning targeted at adults.

ACE programmes are offered at schools, polytechnics and universities. Organisations such as Literacy Aotearoa and English Language Partners, as well as community groups such as U3A, are ACE providers.

Night classes at high schools
You may have enrolled at your local high school’s night classes to learn Italian, cook Indian, or get to grips with Excel.

Nigel Sutton, Wellington High School Community Education director, said people sign up to learn new skills, meet people in their community, or simply get out of the house.

Nigel Sutton, Wellington High School Community Education director

“Lifelong learning is a leisure activity for many, especially baby boomers,” he said.

“This trend has continued with Generation X, but millennials engage with information as they need it, rather than learning for learning’s sake.”

Nigel said a millennial will enrol in an eight-week course to learn a language for a country they’re about to visit, but only attend five sessions before going on their trip “having grabbed what language they need before going off to use it”.

Popular courses often fill up quickly, so you need to enrol early to get a place.

“Pottery, woodwork, Spanish and Te Reo are really popular, as well as career development courses,” Nigel said.

There aren’t as many high schools offering classes as there used to be. Since 2009, when the government cut funding for “hobby” courses, the number of high schools providing courses has dropped from 212 to 17.

Courses at tertiary institutes
Some polytechnics, institutes of technology and universities also offer courses (see our Table).

Polytechnic courses tend to be more vocationally based – think barista, introductory welding and computer courses. With some, such as food safety and liquor licensing, you’ll be assessed for an NZQA (New Zealand Qualifications Authority) approved unit standard.

What universities offer varies. Some have free public lecture series, short courses, or a combination. For example, Victoria University has continuing education courses of a similar duration to Wellington High School’s night classes.

Otago University offers public lectures and some short courses, mainly in health sciences and the humanities. Other than free public lectures, most seminars and courses require payment.

If you’d like recognition for skills you’ve learned on the job or are after specific upskilling without having to study for years, micro-credentials might be the ticket.

Also called “nano-degrees” or “edubits”, these are short, stand-alone courses run by polytechnics and they focus on workplace skills.

These courses can be held on campus or online, or a mix. If you pass, you get a certificate acknowledging your achievement.

Otago Polytechnic’s EduBits programme offers courses on everything from caretaking essentials to writing business proposals and effective leadership.

Online and community learning

If you want the convenience of learning from home, or just want to get together with like-minded people rather than head to a classroom, check out these alternatives:

MOOCs (massive open online courses)

Offered by some of the most renowned teaching institutions – including Stanford, Harvard, and the University of British Columbia – MOOCs teach everything from the science of happiness to Alexander the Great. While anyone with an internet connection can participate, they’re best suited to those with a high standard of literacy because they’re university-level papers. Most courses have a cost. Coursera and edX are the most well-known providers.


Better suited to the social side of learning, Meetup helps like-minded people get together. Whether it’s joining a choir, writing, or hooking up with a dog walkers’ group, you’ll find it on Meetup. Look online, or download the app, and search to find activities you want to do in your area. Alternatively, create a group yourself. These groups focus on having a relaxed environment, are free or have a small fee, and generally aren’t tutor-led.

Community centres and libraries

Check what your local community hub can offer. Classes can range from ESOL to exercise boot camps.

What it costs

Some ACE courses are subsidised by the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) but only if the course targets second-chance learners, raises literacy and numeracy skills, and enables students to feel part of their community.

Courses at polytechnics and universities vary widely in price from less than $100 to several thousand, depending on their duration and whether any assessment is involved.

Courses in Te Reo, New Zealand Sign Language or English as a second language (ESOL) don’t have to meet all the criteria to get TEC funding.

Last year, TEC spent $22.8 million on ACE courses.

With most classes, you’ll pay a fee. Of the 7000 students who attended an ACE class at Wellington High School last year, about 5700 did courses not subsidised by TEC.

An eight-week course at Wellington High (one night per week) costs from $110. At other high schools, costs vary from freebies to more than $200.

Courses at polytechnics and universities vary widely in price from less than $100 to several thousand, depending on their duration and whether any assessment is involved.

Private education providers will typically be at the pricier end of the scale. You might be interested in transcendental meditation, but have an out-of-body experience when you find it costs $1800 for four sessions.

Who can teach?

Anyone can advertise and teach an adult education course. That said, education is covered by the Consumer Guarantees Act and providers must carry out their services with reasonable care and skill. If there are major problems with the course, or you’ve been misled about what it provides, you have grounds to ask for a refund.

Tertiary education providers (except universities) have their quality reviewed by NZQA. This includes organisations delivering NZQA-approved unit standards and TEC-funded programmes.

To find out whether the course you’re interested in is offered by a recognised provider, you can search the NZQA website. While you’re there, you can check the institute’s latest performance report.

Before you enrol, check the tutor’s profile online to see their qualifications and how long they’ve been teaching. You can also ask the provider whether they have a quality assurance process. If so, note how the provider hires tutors, gets feedback and handles complaints. While NZQA can look at student complaints and staffing issues when they come up, its review of providers focuses on how well they provide education.

Adult education teachers don’t need any formal qualifications. However, they should have good subject knowledge – you want your guitar teacher to know their F sharps from their B flats – and be able to clearly communicate information and share their skills.

Tutors also need to be good facilitators. “They need to create cohesion in the class, and structure the lessons,” Nigel said.

Adult education providers compared

Benefits of adult education

There’s more to hobby classes than just learning a new pastime. A 2016 University of Oxford study found students attending creative classes, such as crafts, singing or writing, reaped additional benefits including improved mood and confidence, and were encouraged to lead more active lives.

They also had an increased tolerance of others and sense of belonging in the community.

We popped into the adult community education classes at Wellington High School to see what students were up to and how they were finding their courses:

Kevin Sullivan

Name: Kevin Sullivan
Course: Introductory Spanish
Cost: $175

Kevin plans to travel to Central America at the end of the year with his family and wanted to brush up on his Spanish. He also did a Te Reo course last year, because he was feeling culturally out of touch. He’s enjoyed both courses and feels he’s learnt an amazing amount in a short period of time.

Julie Weir

Name: Julie Weir
Course: Starting a small business
Cost: $110

The course is one tool in Julie’s kit as she starts a business with her sister. She’s also planning on using her new skills to help her partner with his business. She’s found it great for conversation with like-minded people, and has got some great tips about business and where to find other resources.

Hunter Macdonald

Name: Hunter Macdonald
Course: Starting a small business
Cost: $110

Hunter’s planning on opening a pastry business with his partner. The course has been a reality check as to the day-to-day challenges of running a business. He’s also attended a Te Reo course, because he was never taught it at school. “It was great to drink in some knowledge instead of going to the bar after work,” he said. He’s also going to enrol in a social media class to help with his business.

Anne Troy

Name: Anne Troy
Courses: Sewing and Style Yourself
Cost: $105/$90

Anne says she loves doing the courses because the tutors know what they’re talking about, it’s social and it gets her out of the house.

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