Massage Therapy Education Standards in New Zealand

Sheleigh Lawler, Susan Penman & Gail Wolf
November 30, 2002
By Sheleigh Lawler, Susan Penman & Gail Wolf
Education standards for the massage therapy profession are paramount. However, agreement about what the content of a massage therapy qualification should be is sometimes difficult to achieve.

Issues regarding the level of anatomy and physiology, contact teaching hours and supervised clinical hours and what these entail are just a few areas where disagreement occurs. 

Prior to 1990 there were no national educational standards in New Zealand for massage therapy. There were a number of schools and colleges teaching massage therapy.

A national association (New Zealand Association of Therapeutic Massage Practitioners, now the Therapeutic Massage Association, TMA) commenced in 1989 and ran examinations at a national level.

This was the first time we had seen a national industry standard in New Zealand. This initiated colleges teaching courses to enable students to pass the association examinations.

In 1993, the New Zealand College of Massage was established. Directors Susan Penman and Gail Wolf wanted to ensure that qualifications were credible and recognizable.

Susan Penman led a team of people from the massage industry in the process of setting up  minimum national standards for massage therapy, with the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA).

The NZQA consulted with a number of natural therapy industries and set up education standards under
the Natural and Traditional Health and Healing domain. Some of the modalities included under this domain were massage therapy, aromatherapy, reflexology, acupuncture and homeopathy and others. These standards took six years to complete, which gives some indication of the timeline for a process like this.

The task in setting up the education standards for massage therapy, was to decide which factors and qualities comprised an effective massage therapist. In 1999, the Natural and Traditional Health and Healing unit standards became registered.

These unit standards, each representing a particular aspect of massage therapy training, i.e. client record keeping, assessment, palpation, strokes of massage, are now used as a basis for certification and diplomas at a national level. Most Colleges and schools throughout New Zealand are now aware of the content of these unit standards and a number have chosen to work towards them.

There are still some colleges who deliver their own courses with NZQA approval but without having the unit standards as a base. Accreditation to deliver unit standards is a rigorous and costly process and college courses are then moderated each year against these unit standards.

The first qualification of being recognized at a national level was the National Certificate in Relaxation Massage. This involved compulsory anatomy and physiology understanding, massage techniques and strokes, a first aid course and a choice of an elective from a range of areas including aromatherapy, sports massage, reflexology, ortho-bionomy, or infant massage. This certificate involved approximately 285 hours of class and directed learning. In 2001 the first National Diploma in Therapeutic Massage was finalized.

The Diploma is more involved with approximately 1200 hours on-course work. Graduates gain skills to work with a wide range of soft-tissue dysfunction, allowing for more specialized treatment.

The industry is beginning to expand beyond the national diploma level to meet the demand for a degree qualification. The first degree was approved in 2001 at the Southern Institute of Technology. This is a three-year program.

In addition, a Massage Advisory Network, which came from the original NZQA advisory group meets every two months to review the unit standards and national qualifications.

New Zealand is small enough that setting up national education standards has been manageable. The unit standards are set to provide a base that allows flexibility in teaching and learning amongst the colleges.

So what has this meant for massage therapists in New Zealand?

New Zealand is now gaining recognition due to the promotion of the NZQA national qualifications. Schools and colleges have had to evaluate their performance.

Students now graduate feeling confident and credible.

New Zealand’s national qualifications are starting to be recognized overseas, as it holds government approval. Schools and colleges also offer continuing education opportunities with extra courses, workshops and guest speakers.

Greater credibility and consistency with minimum standards portray the “new breed” massage therapists of
the 21st Century.

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