We don’t hear much up here about New Zealand higher education, mainly because the country’s tiny, and literally located at the end of the earth. But that’s a pity, because it’s an interesting system with a lot to like about it.
The country’s university system is pretty ordinary: eight universities, three of which were founded in the 19th century, and the rest founded after WWII. All of them are pretty much based on English lines, with just one – Auckland – generally considered to be “world-class”. Rather, what makes New Zealand an interesting higher education system is what happens outside the universities.
About 30 years ago, New Zealand came close to bankruptcy; in response, the government moved to sharply liberalize the economy. In education, this meant eliminating established educational monopolies, and widening the ability to provide education: anyone who wanted to deliver a degree or a diploma could do so, provided they could meet an independent quality standard. Polytechnics – equivalent to our colleges – started offering degrees (in the process becoming an inspiration to our own colleges, some of whom proceeded to push for their own degree-granting status, and labelled themselves “polytechnics”), and hundreds of private providers started offering diplomas. Despite this liberalization, the system is still able to enforce a qualifications framework, which allows people to stack lower-level qualifications towards higher-level ones – and that’s down to having a serious high-quality regulator in the New Zealand Qualifications Authority.
Another major system feature are the “wānangas”. The term is a Maori word indicating traditional knowledge, but in practice the term has come to mean “Maori polytechnic” (the country’s universities all use the term “Whare Wānanga” – meaning “place of learning” – to translate their names into Maori). There are three of these, two of which are tiny (less than 500 students), and one of which is freaking massive (38,000 today, down from a peak of 65,000 ten years ago). I’ll tell you the story of Te Wānanga o Aotearoa another time, because it deserves its own blog post. But for the moment just keep in mind that in New Zealand, wānangas are considered the fourth “pillar” of higher education (along with universities, polytechnics, and privates), and that these institutions, entirely run by Maori, have had an enormously positive impact on Maori educational attainment rates (see this previous blog for stats on that).
A last point to note about NZ is its international strategy. Like our government, New Zealand’s aims in this area are pretty mercantilist: students in = money in = good. It could not possibly care less about outward mobility or other touchy-feely stuff. What distinguishes their strategy from ours, however, is that theirs is smart. Brilliant, actually. Take a couple of minutes to compare Canada’s laughably thin and one-dimensional policy with Education New Zealand’s unbelievably detailed set of strategies, goals, and tactics laid out not just for the country as a whole, but for each of six key sub-sectors: universities, colleges, privates, primary/secondary schools, English language sector, and educational service/product providers. That, my friends, is a strategy. Now ask yourself: why we can’t produce something that good?
In short, there’s a lot Canadians could learn from New Zealand – if only we paid more attention.