The basics
New Zealand: Applying to University - Must read

The New Zealand higher education system...simplified

Our overview of the New Zealand Higher Education System for international students


Green, warm and responsible for the awe-inspiring backdrops of Lord of the Rings, New Zealand is one of the strongest OECD countries in literacy, maths and science. Boasting a number of institutions that offer programmes from vocational certificate to doctoral levels, New Zealand qualifications are recognized by all leading higher level institutions worldwide. 

Whilst the nation’s education system is based on that of the British, there are a number of subtleties it’s important you know when planning to study abroad in New Zealand. We’ve put together a brief overview of the New Zealand higher education system to help get you on your way.


Types of institution

There are a number of different types of higher education institutions in New Zealand that differ depending on the mode of study relevant to you.


Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics (ITPs)

ITPs offer qualifications that range from foundation certificate through to postgraduate level that focus on vocational areas of practical and applied training and education. Programmes also often encourage applied and technological research.


Private Institutions

There are over 600 privately owned institutions in New Zealand that run a range of specialised courses in particular disciplines, such as business, travel and tourism, and design. A wide range of accredited higher education courses and qualifications are awarded and should be pursued individually with each specific institution.


Wānanga Institutes

Unique to New Zealand, Wānanga institutes offer programmes taught in the spirit of Māori culture. Education has a practical focus, with both a ‘Māori kaupapa’ (foundation) and a strong ‘tikanga’ (culture, protocol).  Students are encouraged to approach their studies via new modes of critical thought that are aligned with traditional values of Māori culture.



There are eight government funded universities in New Zealand, each offering students the change to study at undergraduate, masters and PhD levels across a range of general study areas.



A Bachelors degree in New Zealand typically takes three years to complete for full-time students, but can be extended for as long as it takes for a student to meet specific credit requirements.  Courses, credit and major requirements vary between institutions and should be pursued individually on university websites.

Undergraduate students in New Zealand do not need to meet general education requirements as part of their Bachelors. From their very first semester, students complete subjects directly relevant to their nominated ‘major’ area of study.

A student’s ‘major’ is the area of specialisation within a student’s general field of study that they have chosen to focus their degree on. For example, a student may complete a Bachelor of Science (BSc) majoring in Anatomy. This means that all courses of study undertaken by that student will be directly relevant to the study of anatomy.


Double Degrees

Students also have the option to study two undergraduate degrees at the same time, and depending on the institution and areas of study may be able to cross-credit some assignments and subjects. Double degrees are typically completed within four or five years for a full time student, but can be extended for as long as it takes for the student to meet credit requirements of both programmes.



Honours degrees in New Zealand are offered at post undergraduate and postgraduate levels. For the latter, students may apply to complete an additional year of study following completion of their Bachelors degree that will count as the first year towards their Masters degree.

At an undergraduate level, an Honours degree is an additional qualification that requires students to complete extra work on top of their Bachelor courseload, but without extending the length of their programme. A student with this qualification might graduate with the title ‘Bachelor of Commerce (BCom) (Hons)’. Students must apply for honours as a separate course of study before nominated deadlines.



New Zealand institutions offer postgraduate qualifications in both Masters and PhD programmes. After completing an honours year at postgraduate level, students may complete an additional year at Masters level to receive a Masters degree. Masters programmes are offered across a wide range of study areas, and have a more specific focus than in undergraduate.

All Masters students are required to complete an in-depth, independent research task that may be from 10,000-40,000 words in length. Depending on how long it needs to be, this will either be called your dissertation or thesis, and will focus very specifically on a topic within your specialised field of study.

Students may also complete a Postgraduate Diploma or Certificate at graduate level. These are year-long programmes for students wishing to study in a field different from their Bachelor’s, and in some instances may by credited towards a Masters degree.

A number of PhD programmes are also available to doctoral students.


Academic culture

Inspired by the academic cultures of Australia and the UK, institutions in New Zealand expect students to take initiative in their studies and manage their courseload independently. Students are encouraged to consider problems laterally and discover solutions themselves, using what is covered in class as a starting point.

Depending on your area of study, classes may be lectures, lab classes, workshops, seminars or tutorial groups. Professors will often set small reading or comprehension tasks week to week to help prepare students for what will be covered in the following class. These tasks are often ungraded and students are not penalised for not completing them: rather, tasks are designed to prompt continuous engagement with course content, and equip students with the critical tools to draw their own conclusions.

Students are expected to monitor and maintain their own credit levels, as well as manage their own workload in meeting class requirements. The nature of assessment varies considerably across study areas, specific information of which can be found on university websites.


Now that you have a better idea of how the New Zealand Higher Education system works, why not start browsing courses in New Zealand now and plan your study abroad adventure?


Useful links

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'Tuition fees in New Zealand'

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About Author

Monica Karpinski received her BA (Media and Communications) and Diploma in Modern Languages (French) from the University of Melbourne, Australia. An art and culture aficionado, in her spare time Monica enjoys film, reading and writing about art.