Is polytechnic or university right for you?

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When it comes to studying at third level there are so many options available. This can make it extremely difficult to decide what is best for you. The decision of where to study can have a big impact on your future so it is worth giving it some consideration before deciding.

One decision students are often faced with is should I study at a polytechnic or a university? This is a question that many students ask themselves before they take the next step in their education. There can be many deciding factors to consider such as the learning environment, the teaching methods, work prospects, income levels, study options and so on.   

Before you make this decision it is important to have a really good understanding of the differences regarding polytechnics and universities. Here we look at some differences that will help you make the right choice for your future.

While Studying


How big are the class sizes?

The class sizes in polytechnics are generally smaller than the class sizes you will find in universities. This means the teachers can give students more attention, more individual instructions and more assistance. There are other benefits too with small class sizes as studies have shown that smaller class sizes yield better academic results from students.

The first major study of note on class sizes and what outcome this had on students was Project STAR. This took place in Tennessee in the late 1980s. Project STAR randomly assigned students and teachers to a mix of small, medium and large class sizes. The results of this showed that students in smaller class sizes were more likely to continue studying to the next level of education. Students in smaller class sizes also achieved better results in reading and mathematics. 

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There have been a number of subsequent studies carried out since Project STAR that link smaller class sizes with better student performance. The University of Buffalo also conducted research concluding that students who attend smaller classes are 80% more likely to graduate. You can read the full research paper here.

David Zyngier, senior lecturer of education at Monash University also did extensive research in this area in 2014. His research linked small class sizes to students continuing with their learning journey and ultimately earning higher incomes.

A more intimate study environment can help create a better sense of community within your study group too which can really help with your learning journey.

Practical Learning

Different students process and learn in different ways. To get the most out of your learning experience it can be helpful to have an awareness about your own learning process. Once you have an idea of the ways in which you learn best you can choose an education provider that is most suitable to this. There are several ways to break down the different types of learners but broadly these can be broken into three groups:

  • Visual learners – visual learners learn through seeing so teaching through pictures and graphs is the best way to reach these learners. Roughly 65% of people prefer this learning method.
  • Auditory learners – auditory learners learn from hearing and can hold their attention in lengthy presentations for a long period of time. They also do well in long, word-heavy, lecture situations. Roughly 30% of people prefer this learning method.
  • Kinaesthetic learners – kinaesthetic learners learn by engaging with the task rather than hearing or seeing it so physically being involved, rather than seeing or hearing about it is the best way to reach this group. Roughly 5% of people prefer this learning method.


If you are a person who learns better by seeing and doing, then polytechnics may be right for you as this is the largely the teaching method used. Universities often focus mainly on academic and theoretical learning which would really suit auditory learners. While studying at a polytechnic will also involve academic and theoretical learning there will be a higher degree of practical, hands-on learning that you won’t get at a university which will help visual and Kinesthetic learners get the most out of their learning experience.

What are my study options?

You will find that universities offer a lot of degree courses and they offer fewer courses at the foundation, certificate, and diploma level. For this reason, university courses can take longer to complete and often take a broader look at subject areas.

While polytechnics also offer degree courses, they also offer a range of courses in a certain discipline at a variety of levels. These other course options from polytechnics can be shorter and more centralised. This gives you the option of studying for a longer or a shorter time while still getting a qualification that you can take to the jobs market.

Within the New Zealand education system, there are 10 levels of study. Depending on the level of study completed graduates can then decide on their next option. These options can be further study, on-job training, entry-level employment and so on.

Here is a quick breakdown of the different levels of study available and what is involved.


  • Duration- Certificate courses can take between 6 months to 12 months to complete.
  • Study- These offer a broad introduction into a particular area of study.
  • Next step - Those who complete certificates often move on to entry-level trades or take up further study options.


  • Duration- Diplomas can take between 12 months to two years to fully complete.
  • Study- They offer a more advanced level of study than certificates. They are designed to give students a theoretical or technical knowledge of a certain area.
  • Next step - Once a person completes a diploma-level qualification, they can take entry-level positions in the workforce. They also have the option to continue studying.


  • Duration - Bachelor degrees can take between 3-5 years to fully complete.
  • Study – Degrees level study gives students an in-depth introduction into a particular subject area as well as problem-solving and analytical skills.
  • Next step – Degree holders can move onto entry-level positions or take up further postgraduate study options. Certain jobs require applicants to be degree holders before applying.

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NZQA’s report The New Zealand Qualifications Framework gives a full breakdown of the various study options available in New Zealand. This report looks at study outcomes, credit requirements, learning facilities and more.

Studying in an environment that has this level of flexibility can really suit some students depending on their circumstances and does not necessarily commit students to a prolonged period of study.

After Studying



Polytechnics work with employers and market leaders creating courses based on what the job market requires. This means that graduates are highly employable when they finish their studies. These industry-specific courses, such as our Bachelor of Information Technology which is accredited by IT Professionals New Zealand, look beyond the classroom with the focus being on how we can help turn what students are learning into a job. As these courses are created with the industry it means these courses make graduates work-ready straight from graduation.

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There are several career areas in New Zealand that are crying out for graduates with real skills who are ready to start work straight away. The reasons for this are varied.

Some industries such as IT are witnessing big technology changes which are driving the demand for work-ready graduates with real skills that polytechnics provide. There are other areas like nursing that have a shortage of staff to meet demand. Demand for new graduates is also driven by a potential staffing gap due to a high volume of retirement age nurses. It is estimated that around 27% of the current workforce will retire in the next five years meaning that graduate demand will remain high.

There are other growth areas in need of skilled graduated. You can find a full list of industries looking for graduates to start work here. As there is a gap in recruitment these jobs will need to be filled with work-ready qualified people with practical skills.

Where will I earn more money?

Generally, graduates with a bachelors degree from a university and graduates with a bachelors degree from a polytechnic have very similar income levels. A report by the Ministry of Education looked at income levels regarding bachelors degree holders from universities and bachelor degree holders from polytechnics and found that pay levels were almost identical when graduates started their first jobs.

In some specialised degree teaching areas, for example, business and engineering polytechnic graduates have on average slightly higher income levels than those graduating in the same areas from universities but generally speaking graduating from either a university or a polytechnic will not change your income level greatly. The main thing that will drive an increase in your income level will be your actual qualification rather than the type of institution your qualification came from.

The choice of where to study will really depend on the individual and what sort of study environment will suit them best. If you are someone who prefers hands-on learning, smaller classrooms, more flexible study options then studying at a polytechnic might be right for you. If theoretical learning in a bigger environment is your thing university learning could be your best option.

If you want more information about studying at a polytechnic and see if this is the best option for you drop us a line at


Written by Bobby McGuinness
- Whitireia & WelTec