The Best Universities in New Zealand: What to Know Before You Choose

by Simon Wilson / 19 November, 2013
University. The hallowed halls of academe. The place where you’ll have the most fun of your whole life, or where loneliness threatens to overwhelm you? Where you’ll be thrilled by the intellectual stimulation, or where you’ll just have to work harder than ever? How do you choose? Where should you choose? What do you look for, to find a place at university that will work for you?

This story first appeared in the September 2012 issue of Metro.  Additional reporting by Greg Bruce and Donna Chisholm. Photo by Stephen Langdon.


 

At Harvard University, ranked as the best or near-best university in the world in every list, they put their lectures online, as podcasts. They’re free. You can do a course of Harvard lectures right now. You won’t get a degree, but you will get the benefit of many of the finest teaching minds in the world sharing their wisdom with you. And — a built-in bonus — you can pause and rerun the bits you don’t understand.

It’s tempting to think that maybe you don’t need to go to university at all. But Harvard thinks you do. They give away their content because they’ve something else to sell. Actually, says Stuart McCutcheon — vice-chancellor of New Zealand’s best university, Auckland — Harvard has two things to sell: “the student experience, and accreditation”.

Those two things are immensely valuable. The student experience — who you meet, the things you are exposed to, the academic and social skills you learn — fills out the learning. Being a student on campus gives the lectures and the book-reading a deeper, rounder, more fully fledged meaning. And the accreditation, the piece of paper at the end that says your name is on the hallowed lists of Harvard graduates, well, that’s your ticket to ride.

Harvard is not the only university that gives away its content. It’s quite the thing in some parts of the world. Surprisingly, though, New Zealand universities don’t much go in for it. Why not? McCutcheon talks about all the advantages Harvard has, as a privately funded and extremely prestigious institution, which allow it to seem so generous.

But there’s something else in play too: lectures, in the flesh, can be great. The chance to hear a brilliant mind teach is still one of the single most intellectually exciting things that can happen to you at a university. It’s at the heart of what it means to be a student.

So if you enrol in a New Zealand university, will you actually have that experience very much — in your first year? According to all the universities, the answer is yes. It’s probably true that most of the best minds are doing most of their best work in advanced research, with just a small number of postgraduate research students to help them. But all the universities require their academic leaders to teach at undergraduate level.

Details vary. At Auckland in the first-year, 51 per cent of lecturing in law and 41 per cent in engineering is done by professors. First-year students in the relevant pre-med courses get to hear such world leaders as brain researcher Professor Richard Faull and molecular bio­logist Professor Ted Baker.

Victoria requires all professors to be available to teach at all levels, and Canterbury told us “we typically put our best teachers in the first-year papers”. Otago made a similar comment. Canterbury also participates in an academic exchange programme that “puts up to 75 leading academics from around the world in front of [its] students each year”.

McCutcheon adds that it’s not true high-ranking academics generally make poor teachers. “It’s an urban myth that you only get promoted on research grounds,” he says. Teaching skills are recognised too. “Why wouldn’t they be? You think about it. We want better graduates, so they’ve got to be taught well.” McCutcheon confesses, though, that the people who understand this least tend to be the academics themselves.

When you’re choosing a university, it’s an excellent thing to ask about. Who are the good teachers and what courses do they teach? And who are the best people to ask? Other students. They know.

 

Looking for the best?


There are three main universities to choose from in Auckland: the University of Auckland, AUT University (yes, it really is called Auckland University of Technology University) and the Albany campus of Massey University.

Massey at Albany has an e-business incubator and offers a range of science, technology and humanities courses. It’s quite small, and 30 per cent of its roll is postgraduate. It’s a reasonable choice if you live nearby or you want to do one of its specialist options.

The University of Auckland (UOA) is a completely different beast. It’s the country’s biggest and best university. It’s not just the highest ranked, internationally, it’s the only one with a ranking high enough to make it one of the better universities in the Asia-Pacific. Its research programmes are, on the whole, more highly respected internationally (Otago is also up there), and it receives fully a third of the public money available from the Performance-based Research Fund (PBRF) for tertiary sector research.

None of this is good enough for the UOA, though, which has the professed aim of becoming a genuinely elite institution. Its problem with this is that the government — now and as it has always been — is blind to this. All universities are funded on the same formula and must work within the same fee structure. A geology student at Victoria will be resourced the same as at Auckland. The funding assumes egalitarianism.

Auckland’s current strategic plan, looking out to 2020, has several interconnected goals:

▪ Reduced undergraduate student numbers and higher entry standards.

▪ A strategic focus on communities that are currently under-represented (that means, mostly, Maori and Pasifika). McCutcheon says it’s clear there are many barriers to such students getting to university, but the evidence also shows that once they do, they are likely to perform as well as everyone else. He also admits that although the university has a whole range of initiatives in schools and communities to achieve this aim, they “need to be co-ordinated”.

▪ A bigger and better graduate programme, with the graduate roll rising from 20 to 25 per cent of the total.

▪ A billion dollars spent on buildings. The new Owen G. Glenn building for the Business School is just the start: science and engineering are both in line for major new homes.

▪ To rank among the top four or five universities in Australasia, and to be directly comparable to other top publicly funded universities in Asia, Canada and Britain. Currently, the Times Higher Education Supplement puts Auckland at seventh in Oceania* and the authoritative QS (Quacquarelli Symonds) puts it at eighth.

“We are the only New Zealand university with those stated goals,” says McCutcheon. It’s getting a little bit harder to get into Auckland, and the edge they expect of their students is getting a little bit sharper.

All of this means that if you live in Auckland, it’s not stupid to think that the first question to answer is: Do you want to try to get into the University of Auckland?

In practice, though, it’s worth remembering that for most students the Auckland advantage may not be significant. For some, it won’t exist at all. This is especially true at undergraduate level: all New Zealand’s universities offer sound educational opportunities across the range of their courses. And at postgrad level, all the others have some fields of study in which they are as strong or stronger than UOA.

All have some courses, some teachers and some aspects of student life that make them a better choice for some students than Auckland.

Metro Best Universities NZ

Something different?


AUT, the country’s newest university and right over the road from UOA, is a pretty interesting place. While Auckland works on its elite model and tries to reduce its student numbers, AUT, which grew out of the Auckland Institute of Technology, is the fastest-growing university in the country. It’s what’s called “access-focused”. Clearly, UOA and AUT function as complementary campuses, but that doesn’t mean AUT’s role is simply to mop up all the students who can’t get into Auckland.

AUT has a different approach to teaching, with greater use of interactive classes, computer-based learning and small-group lessons. It told us it is much more strongly focused on “professional subjects” than fundamental sciences and liberal arts, although it denied that “relevant employment is the main objective”. AUT wants to get its graduates into jobs, but not simply through glorified trade training. The primary aim, it says, is to provide its students with “a package of widely transferable skills”.

The academic structure at AUT is also different. A faculty of design and creative technologies puts design and journalism under the same hat as engineering and computing, while the faculty of culture and society includes education, hospitality and tourism, social sciences and languages.

These mash-ups point to different ways of thinking, which are personified in the dean of culture and society, Nigel Hemmington. He’s a British expat, a livewire from the hospitality sector who likes to argue that hotels and restaurants aren’t in the hospitality business at all. Banks do hospitality, he says. Restaurants, like theatres and sports contests, do “experience”.

And, he adds, it’s ridiculous to talk about tourism and “hospitality” being “market-led”. Tourist operators will die if all they do is find out what people think they want and give it to them. They have to lead public expectation and “wow their market with experiences they don’t anticipate”.

To cap it off, he reckons MBAs (master’s degrees in business administration) are the enemy — straitjackets of outmoded ideas, that sort of thing.

In the Hemmington universe, learning is about overturning complacency. Students are trained for work, but the fundamental business of the university is to get them thinking freshly and sharply. That’s the AUT ideal.

 

Want to leave town?


The benefits of staying in your home town are obvious: it’s probably cheaper, you’re less likely to get lost and lonely, and — frankly — if you do live in Auckland already, your undergraduate academic choices are already pretty much as good as they get in this country.

It’s different when it comes to post-graduate study, especially if you go all the way to PhD and post-doctorate research. Get to that stage and you will want to choose with care where you study and under whom.

But universities told us two things about that. First, that your choice of where you do your undergraduate degree would not affect your chance to get into a postgraduate course of your choice. Victoria, for example, doesn’t favour its own graduates for enrolment at its Antarctic Research Centre.

Second, that you shouldn’t decide on where to do postgrad study until you need to. That’s because, by the time you do need to decide, you’ll probably know how to make a good choice, or at least you will know whom to ask.

On the other hand, there are some advantages to leaving town. Sometimes, it’s just time to move on. If that’s true for you, do it.

For many, the experience of living in a residential hall is one of the great things about university life. Everyone there has had the independence of spirit to leave home, so you’ll probably meet a lot of interesting people — and some of them may become your lifelong friends.

So where would you go?

The University of Waikato’s reputation is probably strongest in Maori studies and environmental science, but they pointed us to strengths in many other areas, including computer science, education and management. In the Times Higher Education Supplement rankings of universities less than 50 years old, Waikato ranks a creditable 58th. If you’re attracted to the charms of Hamilton, it’s worth considering.

Massey University presents an intriguing proposition. It has three campuses and almost half of its students are enrolled for “distance learning”: generally, they don’t come to campus. This works well for many people caring for children or busy with paid work, or who move around a lot: 52 of the 182 New Zealand Olympians at the London Games had studied at Massey. That’s a significant endorsement for the quality of the distance-learning experience it offers.

Distance learning is also the basis on which Massey has set up some unusual courses: through a contract with the World Bank, for example, it offers postgraduate study in fighting epidemics.

Traditionally, Massey has been strong in agricultural science and related areas, and it’s still very much a leader in this field. But it’s also a comprehensive university with a wide subject range, and is soon to open new schools in education and health.

Victoria offers a great advantage to anyone wanting to study anything related to government, notably business and law. It also has the country’s leading creative writing school, the International Institute of Modern Letters, which is so good at what it does that no other education provider has been able to come close. But, remember, you’ll get into that on merit, not because you’ve done a BA in English Lit at Victoria.

Where Victoria is strong in law, Canterbury has a similar edge in engineering, but in many other ways the universities are very similar. Canterbury tends to have a slightly higher reputation internationally, and it also has the unique challenge of responding to the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011.

The campus is well away from the most- damaged areas, but there has still been considerable disruption to academic life and also a decline in student numbers. We think that’s a shame. Canterbury has worked hard this year to maintain its academic programme, and reports that “student engagement and academic performance have been above the norm”.

The rebuilding of Christchurch offers some immense opportunities for students — through volunteer work and academic study. From civil engineering to psychology, geography to economics, the university is intimately involved in the rebuild. Many students may discover that being at Canterbury turns into one of the most formative and rewarding experiences of their lives.

Lincoln University, the country’s smallest, is essentially a specialist agricultural college, and as such is the home of some of the most exciting — and important — science being carried out in the country.

And Otago? All those scarfies? The attractions are “obvious”, we’ve been repeatedly told. By which people mean that the student life is really cool. But really? We find it fascinating, sitting in Auckland and watching while students, university managers, Dunedin landlords and city councillors try to come to some agreement about what makes being a student in Dunedin special.

You’re allowed to have fun but it’s not okay to be a lout any more? It’s funky living in those student flats?

Actually, it’s better just to visit for occasional parties, so you don’t have to deal personally with the freezing cold through most of the academic year.

Better to live in the student accommodation on campus: you’ll probably make a lot of friends, and because the campus is just a couple of blocks, on flat land, from all the attractions of the CBD, you’ll be in the middle of everything. Plus, Dunedin offers weekend access to the playground of Central Otago and — on the back of its medical school — the university has strong international rankings.

But it’s not the wonderland it’s often painted as. All universities have a strong student social culture and — sorry if this is a newsflash for some — in all of them, that’s based on your being able to buy all the beer you could possibly want. As for the bands, the shows, the things to see and do, the reality is that the bigger the city, the better the options and the more choice you get.

As for Dunedin, it’s a long and expensive distance from Auckland, and it really is cold. It’s also a small, underperforming — and quite possibly dying — provincial city.

What about overseas? Australian universities set up recruitment drives in the Pullman Hotel these days. Studying in Australia may be fun, but there are no obvious advantages in studying there for most undergraduates, despite the fact that some of the universities are more “elite” than Auckland. Some specialist courses (like film) are better, but this is far truer at postgrad level, and it does depend on your field of study.

* 2013/14 rankings

Metro Best Universities NZ

The thing about rankings


There are three major sets of international rankings, put out by the Times Higher Educational Supplement (THES), the QS rankings (established in a split with THES in 2010 by the Quacquarelli Symonds organisation) and the Shanghai Jiao Tong University rankings. New Zealand universities slip down the ranks of all of them, every year: Auckland, for example, has gone from 46 to 82 in the past five years of the QS rankings, and Otago from 79 to 130. They’re not getting worse. It’s just that the competition is getting better, faster.

That’s true in Australia, and even more so in Korea, Singapore and Japan. And most of all it’s true in China. Just like in the Olympics, China’s best universities are surging up the rankings. In the Shanghai rankings, there are now 25 Asian and Australian universities sitting level with or higher than Auckland.

These rankings are important for a number of mutually reinforcing reasons. A high ranking makes it easier to attract good academic staff. Lower rankings here are driving that growing interest in the better Australian universities.

And — more important than either of those reasons — foreign students care. They bring in the money: UOA’s income per foreign student is $7000 higher than it is for a local student. They also affect the rankings: the number of foreign students is one of the factors that make up the rankings.

New Zealand is caught with two sometimes contradictory goals. We need our universities to rank well internationally, or the quality of everything they do will decline. That suggests they should become more elite. But we also need to provide strong opportunities for tertiary study, and that suggests the universities should be more access-driven. They are, after all, publicly funded.

That dichotomy has been partly resolved on an informal basis in Auckland, but the challenge remains very real for the other universities.

In addition to the international rankings, the quality of university research is closely monitored, and rated, by the Tertiary Education Commission. It runs the Performance-based Research Fund (PBRF), which allocates a set amount each year (currently around $250 million) to tertiary providers on the basis of the ratings. The last ratings determination was in 2006 and another is due this year.

Auckland currently has about a third of all the A-ranked researchers in the tertiary sector, and gets the biggest single chunk of funding, but it is not the university with the highest PBRF rating: that distinction belongs, narrowly, to Otago. AUT and Lincoln have the lowest ratings and the smallest levels of research funding. All of the universities can point to specific fields where they are national leaders in research.

 

Demographics and location


Most students (60 per cent of under­graduates) are women. In 2010, there were 63,070 women enrolled in bachelors’ degrees in New Zealand, compared with 40,060 men. At doctorate level, the gap was narrower: 2070 women (52.6 per cent) and 1860 men were studying for a PhD.

The biggest skew to women is at Massey, but that’s partly due to the distance-learning enrolments. On campus, the proportions are much the same at all universities except Lincoln, which has more men.

Canterbury University and Massey Albany are way out in the suburbs, Massey Manawatu is outside the Palmerston North city limits altogether and Lincoln is a good half-hour’s drive into the country, but the other campuses are all in, or close to, the CBD. If this influences you, it’s a lifestyle thing: there’s no evidence that proximity to the city makes a university better or worse.

Who goes to each university, though, affects the character of the place quite profoundly. Most people benefit from a mix: you want enough people like you, to help you feel at home, and enough who are not like you, so you expand your experience of the world.

Over half the entire Asian student population of New Zealand goes to Auckland and AUT, where they make up around a third of the students on each campus. In the South Island, it’s less than half that.

The highest proportion of Maori and Pasifika students is at Lincoln, but they still make up less than a thousand students in a roll just over 3000. In all, there are fewer than 5000 Maori and Pasifika university students in the entire South Island, out of a combined roll approaching 50,000. If one of the reasons you go to university is to learn about what this country is like and what it might become, you might find that a serious weakness.

Maori and Pasifika are best represented at Waikato and AUT, making up about a fifth of each roll. Auckland is bang on the national average: 15 per cent.

As for all those overseas students, you definitely want to go where they are. Their choices are strongly influenced by the international ratings — in fact, working on the principle that if they like it, it must be good, the number of foreign students on a campus is actually one of the factors used to determine the ratings. Auckland’s two main universities have around 40 per cent of the country’s overseas students between them.

 

Rating the teachers


Just as in school, having even a small number of inspirational teachers can be the making of your time at university. Finding them isn’t easy.

The universities benchmark themselves in the Australasian Survey of Student Engagement (AUSSE) and some also participate in the International Student Barometer, both of which survey thousands of students. You need to ask the universities about this, though, because the organisations’ own websites do not provide a breakdown by institution — and the results are not broken down to the individual level in any case.

There’s a qualification specifically for teaching in a university, which Auckland told us is “becoming increasingly popular with early-career academics”. Currently, 42 of its staff are enrolled. All universities also have various methods of encouraging academics into “professional development”.

There are also national awards for tertiary teachers, with just a few given out each year: recipients of those are definitely worth checking out. The Tertiary Education Performance Report includes more general information on teacher quality (for the awards and the report, see More Help). Auckland also runs a “showcase”, where teachers can share their methods with others.

All universities regularly survey students about their teachers and courses, but the reality is, the results may not be as useful as you might think. All told us, for example, that survey feedback suggests around 85-90 per cent support for the quality of teaching — but we have no idea how to gauge the meaning or value of such statements.

Some student unions also survey students on teacher and course quality; the Auckland union will soon publish its most recent results, and they’re worth looking out for.

The best source of information is informal. Universities are covered by Rate My Teachers, although the number of entries is low. Ask other students, as we suggested above. Check out the academic timetables online and go along to a couple of lectures: in the bigger classes, no one is going to notice if you walk in with all the other students.

Make an appointment with someone in the departments you’re interested in and ask them frankly: which teachers do the students feel most inspired by, and why? This might not, in the end, influence your choice of university or even your choice of major. But it should definitely be a key factor in your choice of individual courses.

Fully 40 per cent of students change their courses, mostly because what they thought they would love turns out to be boring — and the usual reason for that is the quality of the teaching.

 

Support for students


All universities provide for students to receive academic guidance through the departments, but you should not assume they will come looking for you if you start to flounder. AUT is the only university, to our knowledge, that invites all first-year students to “connect” with an assigned adviser, under a scheme called the First Year Experience (FYE). Auckland offers one-to-one support for the first six weeks. Most universities have a Student Learning Centre to help students with the techniques of academic writing and research.

You’ll find student healthcare and other pastoral-care services such as childcare, disability services and careers advice on all campuses, run by the student union and/or the university itself.

What else?


Many people choose on the basis of where their friends go. That might not be a bad idea — universities can be lonely places. But most students make new friends, especially if they are in a residential hall or join a group. You won’t make friends when you walk into a lecture hall, but you will if you get involved in sports, or visit the marae, or hang out at the student newspaper.

The last question — and maybe the most important one — is this: will you get a job? We asked all the universities what proportion of their 2011 graduates were in relevant employment. They couldn’t tell us.

Our last suggestion is this: think about Canterbury. It’s a very good all-round university, and as we’ve said above, it offers so many opportunities, in academic study and in students’ personal lives, to make a major and intensely rewarding contribution to the community. “It is an exciting time to be in Christchurch,” Canterbury told us, “as the city rebuilds and transforms itself into one of the world’s most modern and sustainable cities.” Students are already playing a big role in that.

 

So you want to be...


An accountant

It’s easier — or at least faster — to become a chartered accountant now, with the introduction of three-year degree courses, rather than four, to bring New Zealand into line with global standards. That also means there are more accounting students than ever and a corresponding increase in competition for jobs.

The University of Auckland has long been seen as a hotbed for young accounting talent, and it has a good name among corporate recruiters. The impressive new home of the university’s business school in the Owen G Glenn Building, and the huge financial resources behind the school, contribute to it being, in the words of one recruiter, “a pretty fantastic place”.

Some of the larger firms added that although they take a high proportion of Auckland grads, it’s not easy to say the quality of the accounting programme is the cause, given the heavy concentration of accounting students at Auckland.

The University of Waikato also has a good reputation, built around its strong, internationally recognised management school, which has enjoyed a resurgence in recent times. Graduates from Victoria also do well in the workplace and that university is seen as offering a strong theoretical programme, with strong accreditation internationally. However, the second-largest business school in the country (after Auckland), and therefore worth considering for its range, is at AUT. It has also recently gained valuable international accreditation.

Firms will occasionally focus their recruitment drives on specific universities, depending on their geographic needs or other factors like perceived fit between the cultures of the company and university.

A lawyer

There’s a new kid on the law-school block, with the first 50 graduates from AUT on the job market at the end of this year. Employers told us they will probably “wait and see” before snapping them up. The AUT law school is different in many ways from the University of Auckland’s. Its students were described to us as “older, poorer and browner” and, like most of the country’s other law schools, a high proportion of those who gain first-year entry are likely to continue in law.

Auckland, on the other hand, has a policy of relatively open entry to first year, after which it makes a really tough cull on the basis of marks: 1200 students are reduced to just 300 for the second year.

AUT teaches differently too, with students workshopping in smaller groups rather relying so much on the lecture-hall approach. If you’re older and looking for a mid-career change, AUT may suit you best. It focuses on commercial and financial, criminal and family court law.

Big law firms say the competitiveness of an Auckland University law degree means the cream of its graduates are super slick, polished and driven. Only about 10 per cent of all law students graduate with an LLB alone — most will take conjoint degrees, most commonly in either the arts or commerce.

Auckland is seen as particularly strong in commercial and financial law, while Waikato has built up its reputation in indigenous and environmental law and dispute resolution. Waikato has former Speaker of the House Margaret Wilson, the founding dean, on its lecturing staff, and she specialises in public policy. She says Waikato grads are “adaptable and can think around corners”.

Victoria’s law school is seen as the place to go for international and public policy law, and is highly ranked internationally (as is Auckland). However, employers note that new media and biotechnology are big growth areas for legal specialisation.

A final note: New Zealand produces more law graduates for its population than any country except the US. Only half of them will go on to practise law — partly because there aren’t enough lawyer jobs and partly because many people study law for the inherent value of the intellectual training.

An IT specialist

With the country’s largest computer science department, a strong international ranking and a good reputation among IT employers, the University of Auckland is a solid option. However, industry recruiters told us they don’t believe any one university necessarily provides the best pathway into the field.

Some suggest that the need to develop communication skills or the fit with the culture of the company are more important factors: “What university they went to wouldn’t matter. It’s how they meet our values,” one large employer of IT graduates says. Others emphasise the importance of grades, the length of the degree and the need for broader experience.

It’s a good time to go into IT: there’s a serious and ongoing shortage of people entering the industry, jobs are plentiful and employers are clamouring for well-qualified graduates. “There are so many opportunities in IT — the main thing is just to get a good grounding,” one specialist recruitment consultant says.

A conjoint degree — BA/BSc for instance — is seen by some as a good way to differentiate yourself and develop into a more well-rounded thinker and problem-solver than more single-minded peers. Otago offers computer science as a major in both its BA and BSc programmes. Most of the others offer it solely as a BSc course.

Canterbury University has some interesting postgrad options. It’s the home of NZI3, the National ICT Innovation Institute focusing on robotics, IT and software; and the HIT lab, which researches emerging technologies such as human-robot interaction. And at Victoria, they have partnerships with Weta and Sidhe Interactive, the country’s largest game development studio.

A scientist

Employers and academics told us that where you do your undergraduate degree probably doesn’t matter too much, but they noted an increasing trend for students to choose a university based on its PhD and post-doctoral research programme. This might be focused on centres for research excellence connected to the university, or the scientific superstars based there.

Think the MacDiarmid Institute at Victoria for fledgling nanotechnologists, Auckland’s Maurice Wilkins Centre for biomedical research and Massey’s Riddet institute for food science and nutrition. Many of these centres have investigators based at other universities. Massey and Lincoln are the go-to varsities for agricultural science, crops and food technology; and Auckland and Otago for human sciences and medical degrees.

A career in science doesn’t have to mean life in a lab coat, and those eyeing their commercial prospects would get an advantage at Auckland or Victoria, which host a group called Chiasma, set up to expose science scholars to job opportunities in business rather than academia. Other notable science options include Lincoln for biosecurity, Massey for disaster management, Auckland for neuroscience (home of Professor Richard Faull’s Centre for Brain Research) and Victoria for its Antarctic Research Centre and climate-change work.

A teacher

Public-sector teachers’ colleges have now been incorporated entirely into universities, and most principals we spoke to said they aren’t too fussed which one their teachers come from. There are some differences in the way the courses are conducted — notably in areas like the split between theory/practical and the level of mentoring available — but the differences aren’t significant enough to make it a factor when recruiters are reading over your CV.

Principals emphasise that formal teacher training is just an apprenticeship. Your desire and ability to develop on the job are what really matter.

However, things are changing. A private, Christchurch-based teachers’ college has drawn the admiration of many for its intensive practical focus: trainees spend around two-thirds of their time working in schools, which is considerably more than those in university courses. Auckland Grammar School, renowned for its low staff turnover, has taken on two grads from the course in recent years.

Another controversial upstart is about to throw an even bigger cat among the educational pigeons. The government’s proposed Teach First NZ programme will provide a quick way into teaching for graduates in other fields. Modelled on similar programmes in the US and elsewhere, and offered through the University of Auckland (Graeme Aitken, dean of education there, has been involved in its development), Teach First NZ will take in top graduates from a range of fields, provide an intensive six week live-in course, then send graduates to teach in low-decile schools for two years. [Edit, December 2013: Teach First NZ launched in December 2012; its second intake of 20 teachers launched in November 2013.]

In the US, the model has been used to encourage top students, otherwise put off by the longer training period, to give teaching a try. Here, Teach First NZ is still awaiting regulatory approval but has already drawn support from some leading principals.

An engineer

The universities of Auckland and Canterbury are New Zealand’s engineering powerhouses. Not only are they the largest, oldest and most highly regarded engineering schools in the country, they also offer the most options for aspiring engineers, and are the only universities to offer civil engineering degrees. Graduates from both schools continue to be much in demand with employers.

But they are not your only options. Massey also has a well-established reputation and broad-ranging programme. Waikato and Victoria are noted for their strong connections with local industry — Waikato with the agricultural sector and Victoria with software engineering and the creative digital media sector.

Look for a four-year degree accredited by the Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand (IPENZ). Accreditation is in line with the international Washington Accord, which means that degrees are both well-regarded by employers and internationally portable. That could be critical, given the highly mobile nature of the engineering job market. Engineering degrees at Lincoln and Otago are not accredited.

University programmes differ from those in the polytech sector in that they typically provide the route to a career as a professional engineer. Polytechs focus more on programmes for technicians and technologists.

New Zealand has a shortage of engineers. By one estimate, we need to produce about four times more graduates per year than we do today. Although student numbers have been increasing at existing programmes, with so many jobs and with new courses continuing to come on line, opportunities abound.

A journalist (or a PR guru)

…or even a “communications specialist”.

No need to leave town for this one, with the well-respected AUT three-year bachelor’s degree in communication studies winning the respect of employers for its mix of practical and theoretical skills.

The course is over-subscribed, with about three applications for each of its 300 places, so, apart from doing well at school, applicants can help their chances by showing initiative prior to entry. For example, it’s an advantage for would-be journalists to have worked on the school newspaper or had stories published in community newspapers or magazines.

About 85 per cent of BCS grads get a job after three months, despite widespread retrenchment in media organisations, and journalism and PR are still popular majors. PR applications are gaining in popularity, reflecting the job market and pay rates.

Recruiters say other university media studies and “comms” courses, for example those at Massey (available at its campuses at Albany, Palmerston North and Wellington) and Canterbury, tend to be more academically based, particularly for journalism students, most of whom will have to do a post-graduate diploma to hone their practical skills. Graduates are, however, immediately employable in areas such as PR, marketing and communications.

The old and highly respected Wellington Polytechnic journalism course has become Massey’s post-grad diploma, but that university is expected to offer a two-year master’s in journalism from next year.

We think the AUT course has history and reputation on its side — its comms degree is about 25 years old, and it sits inside a vigorous faculty of creative technologies. Comms majors include digital media, journalism, PR, radio and television. Plus, the AUT course is moving into a new building next year that will include a TV studio, radio station, media centre, edit suites, and computer labs.

You can also study in this field at polytechs, including Wintec in Hamilton, where award-winning writer Steve Braunias has a visiting role on the staff.

 

 

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