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international student studying outside the classroom at school in New Zealand

Understanding the New Zealand Education System

What can you study in New Zealand? Find out more about the New Zealand education system, including qualifications, study levels and how to work here after studying.

If you’re planning to study overseas, it’s important to know you’ll gain a qualification that will set you up for a great job or for further study.

New Zealand is world-ranked at giving students the skills, knowledge and experience for a successful future. Our qualifications are quality assured by the government, making them globally respected and recognised. 

So if you’re thinking about studying here, take a look at our New Zealand Education Journey map to see where you could join our education system, and read more about the different levels below.

Education journey infographic A4

Download a copy of the New Zealand Education Journey map

No matter what level of study you’re ready for, New Zealand has high-quality, government-monitored education providers throughout the country.  

Primary and intermediate school

New Zealand’s personalised, student-centred way of learning encourages school students to think critically and creatively, often working in teams to solve problems. 

School starts with primary school, for children ages 5-10 (Years 1-6). Students follow the National Curriculum, which has a big focus on reading, writing and maths. 

Intermediate schools are for ages 11-12 (Years 7-8). Years 7-8 are also taught at some primary schools and secondary schools.

Secondary school

Secondary schools (also known as high schools or colleges) are for ages 13-18 (Years 9-13). Students can choose from a wide range of subjects; many schools have options as diverse as marine studies, photography or Earth and space science

NCEA and other secondary school qualifications

If you’re at secondary school in New Zealand, you’ll work towards gaining the National Certification of Education Achievement (NCEA). It covers levels 1-3 of the New Zealand Qualifications Framework.

NCEA is used for selection by tertiary institutions in New Zealand. It’s also accepted by many universities and other institutions around the world. 

Some secondary schools also offer the Cambridge International Exams or the International Baccalaureate. 

Tertiary study

If you’re interested in tertiary study in New Zealand, your options include universities, institutes of technology and polytechnics (ITPs) and private training establishments (PTEs). 

Many offer flexible study options, making it easier to find a course or programme to suit your goals and budget. 


New Zealand has eight state-funded universities, all ranked in the top 3% in the world. All are well recognised globally, and work with universities in other countries on research and teaching. 

You can be sure of the value of your degree – New Zealand has a rigorous quality assurance system to ensure degrees meet an internationally-respected standard. 

Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics (ITPs)

ITPs generally offer job-specific training for specific careers, giving you the chance to gain hands-on skills and practical experience. 

Many also have full degree programmes, right up to PhD level. 

ITPs are state-funded and aim to give you the skills and qualifications that will be needed by employers in the future. 

Private Training Establishments (PTEs)

PTEs run practical courses to help you enter your chosen industry, such as travel, tourism and digital design. They have close ties with employers, and tend to have smaller class sizes.

While PTEs usually offer certificates and diplomas, some larger PTEs also offer degrees. 

PTEs are not state-funded but all the qualifications they offer are approved by the New Zealand government and listed on the New Zealand Qualifications Framework. 

English language study and foundation programmes

Many international students study English before starting their academic studies.

If English is your second language, New Zealand has lots of options to help you improve your ability to read, write, speak and listen in English. 

English language schools offer flexible courses all year round. Universities and ITPs run pathway programmes to help students meet the English language requirements of their courses. 

Foundation programmes provide a pathway between secondary school and tertiary study. They can help you improve your English to prepare you for bachelor’s degree study. 

NZQF - qualification levels

Whatever you decide to study, your qualification will be featured on the New Zealand Qualifications Framework (NZQF). 

The 10 levels of the NZQF cover a wide range of qualifications, from the secondary school qualification NCEA at levels 1-3 up to doctoral degrees at level 10. 

Each qualification has met the high quality standards set by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority.

NZQF levels

When you’re considering a programme or course in New Zealand, you should be able to see what level on the NZQF you’d achieve when you graduate, as well as the type of qualification. 

The NZQF levels are: 

  • Levels 1-3: secondary school NCEA
  • Level 4-6: certificates and diplomas
  • Level 7: graduate certificates, graduate diplomas and bachelor’s degrees
  • Level 8: postgraduate certificates, postgraduate diplomas and bachelor honours degrees
  • Level 9: master’s degrees
  • Level 10: doctoral degrees

Staying to work after studying 

If you would like to stay to work in New Zealand after you finish studying, you should be aware that the level of study you complete will impact the length of your post-study work visa

You’ll need to have gained a qualification at level 4 or higher to qualify for a post-study work visa.

If you study at levels 4 to 6, you can apply for a one-year post-study work visa. You may be able to apply for a two-year post-study work visa, if you complete your study outside of Auckland before the end of 2021. 

If you study at level 7 or above, you can apply for a three-year post-study work visa.

Read more about post-study work visas.

Choosing what to study 

Now that you have an idea of what level you might study at, the next step is to find a programme in New Zealand that suits you.

My StudyNZ is the quick and easy way to find courses and institutions in New Zealand based on your personal requirements.

My StudyNZ can also help you to track your study and visa applications. 


Start your education journey today
Find your study match

By Linley Boniface

Updated 3 years ago

Linley Boniface is a contract writer for Education New Zealand. She is based in Wellington, her favourite city in New Zealand. A former journalist, Linley spent a year in Montreal, Canada, as a secondary school student. 

*Views expressed are the blogger's own
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