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Tertiary education

Ongoing participation and success in tertiary education contributes positively to the well-being of people, their families and communities and New Zealand as a whole. Tertiary education ranges from foundation education and training, which provides a bridge into further education and training or work, through to doctoral studies. It includes formal learning that happens at work as well as at tertiary education organisations.44

Data snapshot

  • The 2006 ALLS study showed that the overall literacy and numeracy of the adult Pacific population was lower than that of other ethnic groups.
  • In April 2009, both domestic and international Pacific students’ participation in tertiary education increased more than any other ethnic group from the previous year.
  • Pacific peoples are 7 percent of all industry trainees compared with 4 percent of the workforce.
  • Between 2002 and 2008, the number of under-25-year-old Pacific students studying at diploma level or above increased by 11 percent.
  • At both diploma and degree-level, 18–19-year-old Pacific students are less likely to complete a qualification than students from other ethnic groups.
  • At masters level, the number of Pacific students increased by 4.0 percent between 2006 and 2007, and again by 4 percent to 2008.

Benefits of tertiary education

Higher education is closely linked to income and general well-being, as well as labour productivity (Earle, 2009; Callister & Didham, 2008). At an individual level, people with higher-level tertiary qualifications show a significant earnings advantage over those with a lower-level qualification or no qualification.45 Having a tertiary qualification increases average incomes and also increases the range of income that it is possible to earn (Earle, 2009).

The gap between the average income for people with no educational qualifications and those with either a secondary school qualification or a post-secondary qualification has increased over the last 25 or so years (Cotterell et al., 2008).

People with English as an additional language face barriers to employment and higher incomes, over and above those related to English-based literacy and numeracy and qualifications (Earle, 2009a).

People with English as their first language are likely to earn 13 percent more than those with English as an additional language. This applies to all qualification levels, and is actually greater for those with tertiary qualifications (Earle, 2009a). Immigrants with a non-European language as their first language earn less than immigrants with a European language as their first language, even when qualifications and English-based literacy skills are the same (Earle).

However, having some educational experience in New Zealand can significantly improve English-based literacy and numeracy, which in turn can improve employment and income opportunities (Earle, 2009b). Data show that Pacific peoples born outside New Zealand are more likely to have no qualification, except for Fijian people. However, this probably reflects previous immigration patterns rather than the current situation.

Qualification levels of Pacific people are much better now than in previous years. Figure 11 sets out the percentage of Pacific toppeoples with no qualifications between 1986 and 2006 from Census data.

Figure 11
Graph, People with no qualifications.

Literacy and numeracy of Pacific adults

Strong literacy and numeracy skills are a prerequisite for participation in tertiary education, and in most employment, as well as participation in wider society. People with strong literacy, numeracy and language skills have better employment options and can adapt to changes in work environments. Strong literacy, numeracy and language skills also benefit families and communities. Low levels of literacy and numeracy are a barrier for people moving from unskilled to skilled jobs (see

In the international Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey 2006 (ALLS), the overall literacy and numeracy of the adult Pacific population was lower than that of other ethnic groups.46 Within the Pacific population, those who had English as an additional language had lower literacy and numeracy in English.47 These differences occur at all educational levels and are greater for people who have a non-European language as their first language and/or immigrated to New Zealand as an adult (Earle, 2009). (See

Since 1996, the overall literacy skills of European, Māori and Asian adults rose or remained relatively stable. However, those of Pacific peoples decreased or were unchanged. The 2006 ALLS showed that: 

  • in all four skill domains (prose literacy, document literacy, numeracy, and problem solving skills) for all the age groups, between 62 and 95 percent of Pacific adults had the lowest levels of skills (level 1 or 2)48 
  • in all four skill domains, Pacific adults aged 25 to 34 in 2006 had substantially higher skills than both younger and older Pacific adults 
  • prose literacy skill for Pacific 16–24-year-olds appeared to decrease from 1996 to 2006. However, assessment of the significance of the decline is difficult as the number of Pacific respondents in the IALS survey was relatively small.49

topThere are some significant differences between Pacific men and women. Across all areas of the ALLS study, Pacific women had slightly higher skills than Pacific men. The percentage of Pacific men and women with average or higher-level prose literacy (levels 3–5) appeared to decrease substantially from 1996 to 2006.

The percentage of Pacific men with average or higher-level document literacy appeared to decrease substantially from 1996 to 2006, but for Pacific women, there appears to have been an increase.50

In terms of the main language spoken at home, the average literacy score for those who usually spoke English at home was higher than that for those who spoke another language. This difference was most marked for Cook Island and Samoan adults.51

Overall, Pacific adults who had spent more time in formal education tended to have higher literacy skills.52

Pacific people identified literacy, numeracy, and language as critical in NZQA’s consultation on its Pacific Strategy. People wanted: 

  • more qualifications for Pacific languages 
  • barriers to learning removed through flexible learning in Pacific languages 
  • more focus on literacy and numeracy, with English and maths compulsory at higher levels so learners do not limit their options by having the option to drop those subjects 
  • more literacy and numeracy embedded in other subjects 
  • unit and achievement standards based on cultural values (NZQA, 2008).

People who have not achieved essential literacy and numeracy skills at school can access support for these skills through government-supported literacy programmes in the workplace and through industry training, and also directly from some tertiary education organisations. There is significant demand for industry-specific and work-based literacy and English language learning opportunities (TEC, 2008). (See

In 2008, 6.6 percent of Pacific students were in foundation level courses (levels 1–3) compared with 4.8 percent of non-Pacific students.53

Pacific participation in tertiary education

topIn April 2009, both domestic and international Pacific students’ participation in tertiary education increased from the previous year more than that of any other ethnic group. The increase in the number of domestic enrolments by Pacific men was 14 percent and by Pacific women 12 percent (Wensvoort, 2009). In 2008, there were 1,687 international Pacific enrolments, up from the previous year. From 2005 to 2006, international Pacific enrolments increased by 19 percent, but before this they had declined for three consecutive years.54

Pacific peoples represent 12.1 percent of the population between 18 and 24 years. A higher proportion of Pacific people are participating in tertiary education than the general population, with the exception of Māori.

Table 4
Percentage of population aged 16 years and over enrolled in tertiary education, 2008

Age  % whole population  % Māori population  % Pacific population 
16–24 years  14.5  24.8  3.8 
All adults 16 years +  4.4  19.1  14.7 
Source: Ministry of Education data.
In 2007, 45 percent of domestic Pacific students were Samoan, 20 percent Cook Islands, 17 percent Tongan, 11 percent Fijian, 7 percent Niuean and 3 percent Tokelauan. While Pacific women outnumbered men in tertiary education (17,500 compared to 12,300 in 2008), the number of male Pacific students increased by 10 percent in 2007, more than female Pacific students (6.9 percent).55 However in 2008, the number of female Pacific students increased more than male Pacific students (2 percent compared with 1.5 percent).56

topThe Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT) has the largest proportion of Pacific students followed by Whitireia Polytechnic in Porirua. Auckland University of Technology and the University of Auckland have the highest proportion of Pacific students at university with both at around 9 percent. In raw numbers, the University of Auckland has the largest number of Pacific students with 3,352 Pacific students enrolled in the 2007 academic year. MIT was next with 2,840 Pacific students.57

A third of all Pacific students enrolled in bachelor degrees were enrolled at the University of Auckland in 2007. They made up 9 percent of all University of Auckland bachelor students. Nearly 13 percent of all Pacific bachelor students were enrolled at the Auckland University of Technology while another 11 percent were enrolled at Victoria University.58

The proportion of Pacific and Māori students moving from school to tertiary study has been and still is much lower than that of Asian and European students. This may have something to do with the previously buoyant labour market. Wylie et al. (2009a) reported that more Māori and Pacific 16-year-old students intended to go on to work than other groups. When Pacific school students do go on to tertiary education, they are much more likely to study for level 1 to 3 certificates than for diplomas or degrees. This largely reflects their level of school achievement.59

Work-based tertiary education

Industry training provides an important opportunity for people in the workforce to gain formal qualifications and upgrade their skills. Pacific peoples are 4.9 percent of the workforce. In 2008, the number of Pacific trainees participating in industry training was 12,933 – up from 10,913 in 2006. Pacific trainees now make up 7 percent of all industry trainees. This increase has been steady over the last few years (TEC, 2008).60

Pacific people are more likely to be studying towards lower-level credits.61 In 2008, 48 percent of Pacific trainees were in level 3 or higher industry training programmes compared with 65 percent of all trainees. This may be partly due to the higher number of Pacific trainees with no previous qualifications: 33 percent compared with 20 percent of all participating trainees. Pacific trainees tend to be concentrated in industries such as building services and materials processing (TEC, 2009).

Modern Apprenticeships is an industry training programme for 16–21-year olds that includes greater support for learners than standard industry training. There were a total of 12,140 Modern Apprenticeships in 2008, of which around 375 were filled by Pacific trainees. The proportion of Pacific young people entering Modern Apprenticeships is relatively low, and the reasons for topthis unclear. Figure 12 shows the proportion of Pacific students in Modern Apprenticeships compared with other groups:

Figure 12 

Graph, Students in modern apprenticeships.

The proportion of Pacific trainees in Modern Apprenticeships actually declined between 2007 and 2008 (from 3.5 percent of trainees to 3.1 percent). Pacific learners are also less likely to complete apprenticeships than European learners. This may be linked to the fact that learners with no previous qualifications are the least likely to complete their Modern Apprenticeship (Mahoney, 2009).62 Table 5 sets out the completion rates for Modern Apprenticeships by ethnic group (ibid).

Table 5
Modern Apprenticeship completion rates

Ethnic group  2002 starters  5 year (percent)  6 year (percent)  2003 starters  5 year (percent) 
Pacific 70 29 34 63 13
European  2,910  34  41  2,949  35 
Māori  575  23  27  579  21 
Other  87  41  46  72  35 
Not stated  15  13  13  30  27 
Total  3,657  32  39  3,693  33 
Source: Tertiary Education Commission 2007

Higher-level tertiary education: diplomas and degrees

topSuccessfully completing a tertiary education qualification early in adult life provides better employment opportunities and income, which in turn improves quality of life. Diploma or degree-level qualifications provide the greatest benefits. Pacific people who complete bachelor’s degrees get greater benefits in the level of their income than European people.63 Figure 13 shows that a low percentage of Pacific peoples (4.5 percent) have a bachelor’s degree compared with the total New Zealand population (11.2 percent), according to the 2006 Census.

Figure 13

Graph, Pacific peoples with a degree-level qualification.

Pacific people are about half as likely as the total population to achieve a level 4 qualification or above by the age of 25. They are only a third as likely to achieve a bachelor’s degree by this age.64 However, enrolments by under-25-year-olds at diploma level or above have risen more strongly for Pacific students than for all students.

Between 2002 and 2008, under-25-year-old Pacific students studying at level 4 or above increased by 2 percent compared with 1.3 percent for non-Pacific.65 In addition, Pacific students now have the highest progression rate to higher study.66

topInterestingly, this increase occurred during a time of high employment. In times of high employment, participation in tertiary education often levels off or even drops, because there are more job opportunities available. The strong increase in demand for tertiary education in 2009 may see the rates of Pacific students in all levels of tertiary education increase even more sharply.67

More Pacific students were enrolled in a master’s or doctoral degree in 2007 than in 2006. At master’s level, the number of Pacific students has continued to increase with 343 students in 2007 and 361 in 2008. At doctoral level, there were 118 Pacific students in 2007, 8.3 percent higher than in 2006. In 2008, there were 122 Pacific doctoral students, an increase of 3.4 percent from 2007.

Adults whose parents have undertaken tertiary education are more likely to achieve a tertiary education. Considering the low level of qualifications of many older Pacific peoples, this can work against Pacific students. However, access to tertiary education is improving overall. In 2006, people whose parents had only lower secondary education were more likely to have a tertiary education than they were 10 years earlier.

Research on the relationship between parental income, school achievement and tertiary participation shows that parental income has a definite relationship to school achievement. However, once school achievement is accounted for, tertiary participation is not strongly affected by parental income. The exception to this is that parents with higher incomes tend to choose university for their children.68

Starpath is a research project looking into the barriers to tertiary study for different groups of students. Specifically, the project identifies those critical ‘transition points’ at which different groups of students either step up to the next level of achievement, or fail to progress. Researchers work with groups of students in partner secondary schools and tertiary institutions, and are identifying initiatives in schools and tertiary institutions that will address these barriers to tertiary study (see

Success in tertiary education

How well a student does at school has the strongest influence on their choice of tertiary education and their first-year pass rate in degree-level study. Students with higher NCEA results are more likely to go on to degree-level study and pass their first-year courses than those with lower NCEA results (Earle, 2008).

The highest three or so percent of NCEA results gain a scholarship award. NCEA scholarship rates69 for Pacific students are toplower than for any other group (table 6).

Table 6
Percentage of students studying for NCEA who achieved scholarship results

  2004  2005  2006  2007  2008 
Pākehā  6.0 1.4 10.2 1.2 9.1
Māori 0.6 2.6 0.2 2.3 0.3
Pacific peoples  0.1  2.1  0.6  1.1  0.1 
Asian  1.3  11.6  2.0  14.0  1.8 
Other  1.2  9.7  0.9  5.0  1.4 
Source: NZQA data.
More importantly, a relatively low proportion of Pacific students achieve the requirements to enter university through their NCEA studies. This is similar for Māori students. As discussed above, only 22.8 percent of all Pacific secondary school students achieve the requirements to enter university. There are a number of initiatives designed to improve the numbers of students from poorer communities, including many Pacific students, entering university. The MATES programme is one such initiative.


  • Realising the potential of Pacific students to succeed in higher education is the key purpose of MATES, the Mentoring and Tutoring Education Scheme run by Great Potentials and the University of Auckland. MATES provides school students who have the potential to achieve, but who are at risk of underachievement, with a friendly university mentor or tutor.
  • Starting in 2002, MATES is now active in 12 secondary schools and one intermediate school in poorer areas of Auckland. The programme has increased academic achievement, raised aspirations, and enhanced the self-confidence of the students who have participated.
  • Twelve students are chosen from each school and matched with an appropriate university student mentor. Mentors will work with students to provide role modelling, encouragement and personal involvement for around three hours each week after school. Mentors will also help students develop their academic skills in areas where they need further support.
  • In 2006, over 90 percent of students in MATES had made a significant improvement in their academic achievement and had higher NCEA results than other students from the same schools. Parents found that MATES had a significant impact on their child's attitude to school and to higher learning, as well as increasing their self-confidence, self-esteem and academic achievement.
  • Approximately three quarters of year 13 MATES participants in 2004 went on to enrol at New Zealand universities in 2006.

A recent study of success in degree study found that even after controlling for differences in school achievement, Pacific students were less likely to pass all of their first-year courses (Scott, 2008).

At both diploma and degree levels, 18–19-year-old Pacific students are less likely to complete a qualification than students from other ethnic groups.70 The retention rates of 18–19-year-old Pacific students in their first year are lower than those of European and Asian students in diplomas, but similar for degrees. However, retention rates have decreased in recent years as participation has increased. The persistence of poor completion rates means that the increase in Pacific student participation in tertiary education may not actually lead to improved educational outcomes, especially at the higher levels.

Completion is important. Pacific students who complete their qualifications are more likely than average to progress to further study, and generally earn a higher income than non-Pacific students who complete a qualification. Pacific people who do not complete degrees on average earn a lower income than non-Pacific people who do not complete them.71

It is, therefore, important to understand the reasons why Pacific students are more likely not to complete qualifications. Key factors that affect learning outcomes in tertiary education can be grouped into: 

  • home or community factors: such as competing demands from family, church, or work 
  • institution factors: such as the availability of learning support services; teaching practices and relationships; and the place of Pacific knowledge and experience within courses. (Coxon et al., 2002)

topThe need for more flexible study options, for example, to fit better with family responsibilities, was a key theme emerging from the discussions at the Pacific Jobs Fono in February 2009. Wider policy settings also influence outcomes, for example financial support. Pacific students have lower-than-average student loans, potentially related to the higher propensity to drop out.

A literature search found that the key barriers to retention ranged from personal attitudes and a lack of motivation, to financial pressures and the learning environment. Overall, ‘integration’ was the most common barrier discussed (Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs, draft 2009). Integration includes:

  • feelings of social and academic isolation 
  • no feeling of belonging 
  • a lack of involvement in the academic and social spheres of campus 
  • no ‘critical mass’ of students from similar backgrounds (ethnic and/or socio-economic) 
  • a lack of diversity (ethnic and/or socio-economic) 
  • a lack of student networks, both with other students and with campus staff.

The literature search also identified that the quality of teaching was the most frequently discussed way of improving retention. This was closely followed by a supportive learning environment, assisted transitions to tertiary education, and student support services. Quality teaching includes:

  • teachers that are dynamic, innovative and interactive, have high expectations and use a variety of teaching methods to cater for different learning styles 
  • culturally inclusive classes that link the cultures and backgrounds of students to the topic of discussion 
  • smaller groups to make learning and asking questions easier, with a closer teacher-student relationship 
  • professional development for teachers to improve their teaching skills and ability to work effectively with diverse students. (Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs, draft 2009).

A significant number of Pacific students choose to attend private Pacific tertiary education providers72 which provide a smaller, more supportive learning environment. Of the students attending private training establishments (PTEs) in 2008, 12.5 percent were Pacific students (compared with 5.9 percent in universities or polytechnics). European students were 53 percent of the students attending PTEs, and around 70 percent of those in universities and polytechnics.73

Looking at five-year completion rates, 49 percent of Pacific students complete their qualifications in PTEs compared with an average completion rate of 34 percent for Pacific students across the rest of the sector. Completion rates for Pacific students five years after enrolling are far higher for PTEs than for other providers (44 percent compared with 30–33 percent for other providers) (Tertiary Education Commission, 2009).

A New Zealand study of tertiary education in PTEs has found that some things are particularly important for supporting the success of Pacific students (Marshall et al., 2008). These include: 

  • the use of an holistic approach 
  • meeting learners at a location that suits them 
  • the use of celebration, fun, and humour 
  • a family atmosphere that encourages and accepts Pacific learners. (Marshall et al., 2008).

Having Pacific staff as lecturers and support staff can affect the learning outcomes of Pacific students in tertiary education (eg, Coxon et al., 2002). Auckland University has 2.3 percent Pacific staff and Auckland University of Technology has 3.1 percent.

In 2006, there were more Pacific academic staff (46 percent) than other staff in the third-highest income group for academic staff ($50,001 to $70,000 per year). While there were no Pacific academics in the highest income group in higher education, Pacific academics were also the smallest proportion in the lowest income group (Tertiary Sector Performance Analysis and topReporting, 2008a).

Community links

The tertiary education system also needs to be responsive to the development aspirations of Pacific peoples (see Building strong connections between tertiary education organisations and communities is one way of achieving improved outcomes.

By 2006, about half of tertiary education organisations reported that they were developing relationships with Pacific communities. However, most of these were focused on attracting more Pacific students and few on understanding and addressing the needs and aspirations of the community. The main Pacific focus for tertiary education organisations is on raising student achievement. The degree of explicit commitment to this varies across organisations (Tertiary Sector Performance Analysis and Reporting, 2009). See

From 2002 to 2006, universities have shown an increased recognition of Pacific communities as key stakeholders, with the number of universities making explicit reference to them increasing from one in 2002 to four in 2005 and 2006. In 2006, around half the universities included specific references to Pacific students in their annual reports. Objectives about Pacific students were most common in the area of access and recruitment. Some universities also mentioned Pacific students in the context of support services and sometimes in relation to student achievement. There was no relationship between the inclusion of Pacific students in university objectives and the number or proportion of Pacific students at the university. However, larger universities were more likely to have teaching and learning objectives about Pacific peoples (Earle, 2008b). See

Student loans

Student loans and allowances are intended to make the immediate cost of study less of a factor in deciding to participate in tertiary education. In 2007, the number of Pacific students getting student allowances increased by 4.6 percent from the previous year. This is less than the overall increase of 5.1 percent for all allowance recipients.

In 2007, 43 percent of Pacific students borrowed from the Student Loan Scheme – 47 percent of Pacific women held loans and 39 percent of Pacific men. This is slightly higher than for all domestic students, of which 42 percent of women and 35 percent of men held loans. The average amount borrowed by Pacific students in 2007 was $6,713. On average, Europeans borrowed greater amounts than Pacific peoples (Wensvoort, 2009b).

Effective repayment of loans is dependent on the person’s income after study. Income is affected by the level at which the person studied, and whether or not the person completed their studies. For Pacific people, these are both areas where the outcomes are less positive than other groups. Pacific peoples are therefore among those who make little progress in paying off their loans (Smyth & Wyatt, 2005). Women are also less likely to make progress repaying their loans.

In 2007, Pacific students made up 7.3 percent of students who took out a loan. Returning to those students who took out a loan in 1997, 46 percent of borrowers who had made no progress in paying off their loan by 2007 were Pacific borrowers. 42 percent were Māori and only 23 percent European. Considering that Māori and Pacific students make up a much smaller proportion of loan borrowers per year, this shows that a very high proportion of Pacific and Māori borrowers have considerable difficulty paying the loan back. This may be because many of them take out loans for foundation-level courses after not achieving this learning at school. People who study for certificates are far more likely to not make any progress in repaying their loans five years after study than those who studied for bachelor’s degrees (Smyth & Wyatt, 2005). As discussed above, lower-level courses have far lower wage benefits than higher-level tertiary education.

The impact on student loans of lower-level study and incomplete study makes it even more critical that the education system topsupports Pacific people to study and successfully complete degree-level qualifications rather than remain at the certificate level.

What would make the most difference?

  • Support for parents and students to make informed choices about subjects at school that open up pathways. 
  • Schools ensuring that Pacific students’ learning pathways do not stop them from gaining the requirements to enter university. 
  • Effective teaching that secures literacy foundations before level 1 NCEA. 
  • Effective teaching that ensures Pacific students achieve NCEA level 3 and university entrance at school. 
  • Schools and tertiary education organisations working together to support Pacific students to adapt to the tertiary education environment, including providing information and peer support networks. 
  • TEOs providing learning environments that support Pacific students.  


44 Tertiary education organisations include universities, wānānga, Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics, adult and community providers, and Private Training Establishments.
45 Profile and Trends 2007.
46 Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey assessed the literacy and numeracy of adults across participating countries. See
48 Skill levels are from level 1 (very low) to level 5(very high)
56 Ministry of Education data.
57 Education Counts statistical tables ENR.32 (enrolments data).
58 Education Counts statistical tables ENR.32 (enrolments data).
63 Ministry of Education, 2008(d).
66 Ministry of Education, 2008(d).
67 Ministry of Education data.
69 Scholarship indicates the highest results in a subject area.
71 Current Trends & Economic Status of Pacific Peoples, Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs.
72 Private Training Establishments (PTEs).
73 Ministry of Education data.

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