Far fewer students able to study at tertiary level as tougher requirements take effect.

A big drop in the number of students able to study at tertiary level has prompted calls for the New Zealand Qualifications Authority to review whether new University Entrance (UE) requirements are having the desired effect.

More than 20,500 Year 13 students - 58 per cent - achieved NCEA Level 3 last year. That's the new entry level requirement for students wanting to go to university which is down from 71 per cent in 2013 and lower than 10 years ago when 64 per cent of students gained UE.

Education Minister Hekia Parata has defended the new requirements, saying they were well flagged and a drop was expected.

However, Universities New Zealand head Chris Whelan said the size of the drop was surprising and the Post Primary Teachers Association (PPTA) wants the qualifications authority (NZQA) to review whether the changes ensure university students have the skills and ability to succeed, as intended.

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Mr Whelan said his organisation, which represents New Zealand's eight universities, had been pushing to raise the standards for UE, as it was not fair for young people to be given the wrong signals about whether they would succeed at that level.

However, he was surprised by how many students failed to meet the new requirements and Universities NZ was working with government organisations to ensure students who could succeed hadn't been given bad advice and taken the wrong courses last year. He said there were review and appeal processes for those who hadn't gained entrance, and universities could still admit those students at their discretion.

"Obviously we're wanting to make sure every young person that has the ability is able to get into university."

Mr Whelan said some students who had gained UE in the past had dropped out of university because they were not academically capable, which was unfair. "UE is supposed to be a way of signalling that you are ready for university and if you apply yourself you'll probably succeed."

Ms Parata said the changes, announced by NZQA in August 2011, had been signalled for three years.

She said students who had not achieved UE and wanted to study at university could talk to tertiary institutions and NZQA about foundation and bridging courses.

While that would add time and cost to their study, under the old standard too many school-leavers were failing papers.

"The whole point of this is so students can be well prepared ... I am comfortable with the standard that has now been set and been advised for over three years now."

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NZQA had consulted widely before implementing the changes, which had been at the request of universities and had the discretion to review the award of UE for individual students.

"The changes do not mean school standards have fallen, " she said.

PPTA president Angela Roberts said the minister's response to the drop was "very simplistic".

Though she agreed that the changes made to lift the bar for UE was a good thing, she was concerned with a narrowing of what was acceptable for students to use towards gaining admission to the tertiary education providers.

"We would like NZQA to do a bit more digging because we want to see whether the changes have actually had the desired impact ... If kids are missing out on UE because they can't fit in to what the universities require as far as subject, then I think that's potentially a problem."

New UE requirements

• For the first time, NCEA Level 3 was required to gain UE, alongside an increase in entry-level literacy requirements.

• 58% of students gained UE, down from 71% in 2013

• Minister says new requirements well flagged and a drop expected

• Universities NZ, which supported the change, says level of decrease is surprising

• PPTA calling on NZQA to see if the changes have actually had the desired impact