An overview of universities and polytechnics

Higher education and further education are known as post-compulsory education in New Zealand.

Higher education is provided by eight universities, 25 polytechnics and a number of colleges of education specialising in teacher training. Higher education institutions are expected to operate on a ‘free market’ basis and compete with one another for students. They’re funded partly by student fees and partly by government subsidies, which are allocated according to student numbers rather than on the basis of need.


Universities are the most prestigious educational establishments in New Zealand. There are eight: Auckland University of Technology, Lincoln University (near Christchurch), Massey University (at Albany near Auckland, Palmerston North and Wellington), the University of Auckland, the University of Canterbury (in Christchurch), the University of Otago at Dunedin, the University of Waikato (located at Hamilton) and Victoria University (Wellington).

All universities offer a wide choice of courses, although each tends to have certain specialities in which it’s regarded as a ‘centre of excellence’. For example, the University of Otago specialises in dentistry, home science, medicine, pharmacy, physical education (PE) and surveying, and Lincoln University specialises in agriculture and horticulture.

The University of Auckland specialises in architecture, art, engineering, medicine, optometry and planning, and the University of Canterbury in engineering, fine art and forestry.

Victoria University is the main institution for public administration and social work, whereas Massey University is noted for agriculture and horticulture, and also produces most of New Zealand’s veterinary surgeons.

The University of Waikato specialises in arts, computing and mathematics, education, engineering, law, and Maori and Pacific studies, while it would be an insult to the intelligence of readers to explain what Auckland University of Technology concentrates on.

No university is regarded as better or worse than any other, although a degree in a subject from a university that’s a centre of excellence in that subject is more highly valued than a degree from a university which isn’t. Auckland is the largest university in terms of student numbers (over 32,000 in 2005) and offers the widest range of courses. It’s also more cosmopolitan, whereas the others, both geographically and intellectually, are more provincial.

Honours degree programmes last for three or four years. Entry requirements depend on the individual course, and some courses, such as medicine, demand nothing less than the best grades. Each university organises its own admissions and most distribute an enrolment pack in the first week of September and applications must be submitted by the end of the first week of December. The university and polytechnic academic year runs from February until November.


While universities specialise in academic study, polytechnics tend to specialise in applied studies. They don’t compete directly with universities, although some subjects (e.g. accountancy) can be studied at both universities and polytechnics. Polytechnics usually offer diploma or certificate courses rather than degrees and provide mainly short courses or courses for those who are already in work and wish to study part-time. © 2003-2021 Just Landed