Across all providers, more than a third of enrolled tertiary students fail to earn a qualification within the standard time frame. However, data on the reasons why students drop out isn’t collected.
A middle-aged full-time worker enrolled in one course who decides against completing a qualification makes a very different decision from a 19-year-old who fails all their papers and consequently quits.
A spokesperson for the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC), which monitored the sector, said: “Research in this area can only be done by extensive surveying of students, which neither TEC nor the Ministry of Education has the capacity to conduct in the short term.
“Study offers valuable life skills and experience as well as education. As the workforce is changing, some students reset their goals during study and look to upskill while working.”
The government once treated low qualification completion rates as a problem. Former Tertiary Education Minister Stephen Joyce tied a portion of tertiary institutes’ funding to the number of students who passed courses and graduated. His Labour successor, Chris Hipkins, revoked the policy last year.
On the issue, Minister Hipkins said: “New Zealand’s completion rates for qualifications stack up favourably against rates across the OECD. However, focusing just on completion rates for qualifications does not provide a full picture of the health of a tertiary education system.”
The minister said tertiary students enrol for “a variety of reasons” other than gaining a degree or diploma. “Nevertheless, completing a qualification (especially a first qualification) is important because it demonstrates completion of a broad package of learning,” he said.
Last year, tertiary education received a funding boost. The government allocated an extra 12% to the 2018-19 budget and introduced the fully subsidised initial year of study. One of the stated intentions was to increase enrolments, which had been dropping.
Numbers stabilised in 2018 with an estimated 50,000 students signing up to get the benefit of the fees-free policy. However, enrolments didn’t meet government projections and $200 million pledged towards the initiative was redirected earlier this year to other tertiary policies.
Data to assess whether the policy affected course completion rates or other performance indicators won’t be released until later this year.
Tertiary education doesn’t come cheap – for either students or taxpayers. In 2015, 4.8% of total government spending went to tertiary education, which is double the OECD average. Yet domestic students still forked over higher tuition fees than their OECD peers (though the fully subsidised first year will change this).
The number of Kiwis with formal qualifications was increasing, though we’re bang on the OECD average: 44% of all New Zealanders aged 25 to 34 in 2017 were tertiary educated.