Maori students should be granted open access to universities at any age with no qualifications, says Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples.

Dr Sharples, who is also Associate Education Minister, said allocating Maori places regardless of their qualifications would boost Maori participation at higher levels of study.

Maori involvement in tertiary study was higher than for any other ethnic group, but was centred around low-level courses, he said.

The percentage of working-age Maori with bachelors degrees had risen from 2 per cent in 1997 to 7.1 per cent in 2007 but was still behind the 17.6 per cent of Pakeha.

Dr Sharples said the challenge was not only to help Maori enter university, but also to provide support structures to ensure they came out of it holding a higher qualification.

"If you want equal education opportunities for all people, then it becomes a myth unless you put in some support for those who need special help, who are under-achieving."

Dr Sharples accepted that he was advocating preferential treatment for Maori, but said that was the way it had to be.

"We don't have the basic educational or cultural background to make it in those institutions," he said.

Dr Sharples believed that while just 63 per cent of Maori men and 67 per cent of Maori women left school with NCEA Level 1 - 20 percentage points fewer than for Pakeha - they could do well at university.

Anyone could come out of school with a miserable record and go straight to university, he said.

Prime Minister John Key said his preference would be to resolve the underlying issues, "and that is that if young Maori are not meeting the grade for NCEA, then we need to go back to resolving the issues in relation to literacy and numeracy".

"That's why the Government's supporting its programmes in that area, rather than just letting people into university holus bolus."

The vice-chancellor of the Auckland University of Technology, Derek McCormack, said he agreed with Dr Sharples that reserved places in universities had proven the ability of Maori students to rise to the challenge if they were given the opportunity.

The current method of capping student numbers was disadvantageous for Maori students, Professor McCormack said.

AUT's percentage of Maori students was roughly equivalent to the Maori population of the region - 10 per cent - and had a success rate of 77 per cent, while the university's overall average was 81 per cent, he said.

Jim Peters, pro vice-chancellor (Maori) at the University of Auckland, said the institution already granted access to any Maori student with university entrance but was still restricted by the Tertiary Education Commission's student funding caps.