Tertiary student enrolments for 2011 were the lowest in nearly 10 years, and a higher percentage got loans, statistics show.
Only 431,313 students signed up for universities, polytechnics and other post-secondary school training last year, down 7.4 per cent from 2010, according to Statistics New Zealand figures.
It was the lowest figure since the 419,337 enrolments in 2002, with the highest being 501,156 in 2005.
There was a 3 per cent rise in the proportion of tertiary students taking out loans, from 45.6 per cent in 2010 to 48.1 per cent in 2011.
Victoria University of Wellington Students Association president Bridie Hood blamed the rising price of education for decreasing enrolments and changing attitudes about study.
The past few years had seen Government cuts in support to students, such as part-time students no longer being able to access course-related cost loans, and fewer students qualifying for student allowances, she said.
"I think that's starting to impact on students' decision of whether to go into tertiary education.
"The way people think about study has changed. There is a changing mind-set in tertiary education in getting [to university] and getting out as soon as possible."
But Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment Minister Steven Joyce said enrolments were falling at the lower levels of tertiary study, not bachelors' degrees or above, and that was a result of the Government's continuing efforts to tighten courses on offer at certificate level.
"Falling enrolment at certificate level is a result of ongoing weeding-out of poor-quality options," he said.
"The previous government allowed people to just go nuts enrolling in levels one and two and then, in 2005, they started to tighten it up, and we've continued that process, stopping short and low- performance courses."
It was "good news" that fewer people were studying at certificate level because those qualifications were unlikely to increase their income premium to a point at which they would be able to pay back their loans.
"There is less low- level, low-cost study and more higher-level, high-cost study, which leads to better outcomes, but will mean bigger student loans," he said.
Statistics NZ figures showed student-loan borrowers were leaving tertiary study with the highest debt since the loan scheme was introduced in 1992.
Borrowers who studied at bachelor's level and left study in 2010 owed an average of $22,060 on their student loans, up 2.5 per cent from 2009.
The average amount borrowed in a year continued to increase. More than 207,000 students borrowed an average of $7630 in 2011, which included a 7.1 per cent increase in the average amount borrowed for course fees.
BY THE NUMBERS
Annual tertiary enrolments:
- The Dominion Post
Does more need to be done to protect NZ passports?