Universities face repeated falls in student enrolment

New Zealand’s government is promising to reinvest in the country’s universities as they face a big drop in enrolments.

The Education Ministry has forecast that degree and postgraduate enrolments by domestic students will fall every year until at least 2019 because there are fewer school-leavers and less unemployment.

It has predicted a drop of nearly 3,000 full-time students this year, a further 5,200 in 2017, and about 1,900 in 2018.

That would reduce enrolments by 10,000 full-time students or 7% on 2015 numbers, and cut more than NZ$120 million (US$80 million) a year in government funding and fees from the tertiary sector.

New Zealand’s polytechnics and private tertiary institutions can offer degrees and postgraduate qualifications, but its universities account for the most enrolments and are likely to be hardest hit.

The director of Universities New Zealand, Chris Whelan, says the situation is challenging, though it is too early to know how accurate the forecast is.

"We can't argue with the demographics. We know that the numbers of 17-year-olds coming out of the school system are dropping by about one to two percent a year, levelling off in 2019 and starting to reverse after that, but we are definitely in a very tight four-year period."

The president of the Tertiary Education Union, Sandra Grey, says a fall in the number of students is likely to lead to course cuts and possibly to some universities narrowing the number of courses they offer.

"We might see a little more specialisation in institutions, we might see a little more targeting of particular groups of students rather than a broad-based provision in some areas and that's probably not a bad thing as long as we have that network of provision around the country and saying there are still some broad-based institutions teaching these courses."

However, the Minister of Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment, Steven Joyce, says the government has assured university leaders it will reinvest in the sector as enrolments fall.

"We've said to them all the way through that as the numbers do drop, we'll look to reinvest in the system."

Joyce said the government had already increased research funds dominated by universities, and the per-student subsidies for certain fields of study, such as science and engineering.

He would not guarantee that the amount of new spending would match what universities will lose, but he said they could expect more from the government.

"We want to invest more per student over time as we're able to, so that would be our intention to continue to do so, whether it exactly matches that is another story."