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Completing or graduating? What is the question?

30 January 2019 | news

“So, the reality is a third of university students should never have gone to university in the first place.”

This comment was made on a recent Stuff article about the apparent number of NZ university students not completing the university degree in which they enrolled. It sums up the public perception of the data as they were presented.

But was the article a fair and accurate representation of what actually happens at New Zealand universities? And how do NZ universities compare with their overseas counterparts?

Completion rates and graduation rates mean different things. The OECD provides an international comparison of graduation rates, an indicator that reflects the rates at which a country produces graduates.

Completion rates are a measure of the efficiency or success of tertiary education systems and students.

Completion rates are widely used and reported in New Zealand, but limited information is available on the international comparison of these rates, and comparison between countries is not straightforward.

To fairly compare New Zealand with other countries, a number of factors must be considered:

  • Both countries must have longitudinal data on individual students and measure cohorts in similar ways—this information is not always available.
  • The composition and direction of programmes in each country is different.
  • Student bodies differ in composition from country to country. New Zealand, for instance, has a higher proportion of part-time and international students than other countries we compare ourselves to.
  • Financial support and funding should be considered, as it affects both the study method and how long it’s likely to take students to complete enrolled studies.

UNZ analysis of international completion rates, controlling for these factors, is presented below:


True cohort by theoretical duration
(3 years)
True cohort completion by
3 years after theoretical duration
(N+3=6 years)
Percentage of international students Tuition fees for domestic students
(public institutions)
Norway 49.9 76.1 2.0 no tuition fees
Denmark 49.8 80.6 5.5 no tuition fees
Finland 42.6 67.7 5.5 no tuition fees
Belgium 38.4 72.8 8.2 $155
Sweden 36.4 53.2 2.4 no tuition fees
New Zealand 35.5 81.4 14.3 $4,113
Netherlands 31.6 65.8 8.3 $2,300
Australia 31.1 70.0 13.1 $4,473
Austria 23.3 57.8 18.6 $861
Source: OECD, Education at Glance 2016, Table A9.1, Table C4.1, Table B5.1 (tuition fees are in equivalent USD converted using PPPs). Mainly 2014 data was used in EAG 2016.

Table 1. Completion rate of full-time students (domestic and international) who entered bachelor's or equivalent level (2014).

This sets out the completion rates for all full-time students—both international and domestic—who enrolled in bachelor’s degrees or equivalent qualifications. The cohort is given three (column 2) and six years (column 2) to complete a bachelor’s degree qualification, and the corresponding completion rates are presented in each column.

Looking to compare ‘like with like’—considering the proportion of international students in a cohort and the level of tuition fees, for example—we can compare New Zealand with Australia, and our completion rates over 3 and 6 years are higher by 4 and 11 percentage points respectively.

In short, New Zealand’s university completion rates are good by international standards.