Maori success in education is being celebrated as new research shows more are graduating from university - with more than half being the first in their immediate family to do so.

A University of Otago study has revealed that nearly half of recent Maori graduates were the first among their immediate family, one third were parents and almost three-quarters were female.

The findings are from the Graduate Longitudinal Study New Zealand (GLSNZ), an ongoing project that over a 10-year period is investigating the employment, health and social outcomes of more than 8700 graduates from all eight universities in the country.

This latest research, which has come out of Otago's National Centre for Lifecourse Research and which was published in Higher Education Research and Development journal, used information from those in their final year of study in 2011.

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It looked at the background of more than 600 Maori graduates, what they had studied, how they had studied and their future plans.

Lead author Dr Reremoana Theodore said it was a wonderful statement of Maori achievement.

"Maori graduates are critical for Maori futures and the future of New Zealand," she said.

"We know that higher education is associated with benefits to the individual graduate...and their communities."

She said this would enable better levels of employment, health, higher rates of community service and reduced poverty levels.

The study also showed that half of Maori graduates studied humanities and education, followed by 18 per cent in commerce, 15 per cent science and engineering, 11 per cent health sciences, 3 per cent in law, with 2 per cent going on to do their PhD.

It found men were more likely to study commerce than women, and that students with children were less likely to study science or engineering.

When it came to their long term plans, graduates tended to aim for careers in education and training, 28 per cent, followed by health care and medical, 17 per cent, and 12 per cent looked to government for their dream job.

GLSNZ co-director Dr Karen Tustin said most graduates wanted to make a difference and a contribution to the Maori community and to society as a whole.

"This was particularly so for those who were the first in their families to attend university."

She said future follow up, at two, five and ten years post-graduation would enable researchers to determine how the graduates' intentions were realised and the benefits this could have for New Zealand.

However, while there were a growing number of Maori graduating, they remain under-represented within the graduate population - only comprising 7 per cent of the sample and only 6 per cent of the sample went on to post-graduate study.

Comparatively Maori comprise 15 per cent of the total population.

Dr Theodore said to help improve Maori achievement there needed to be a "whole university approach to supporting Maori success" alongside adequate government support.

University of Otago masters student, Chelsea Cunningham, 24, was not only the first in her family to get a degree, but also the first to complete high-school.

While living on a different island from her closest family, as she undertook her university studies, was hard, Ms Cunningham said they were never far from her mind.

"It's hard when I'm so far away from them," she said. "But everything I do is for them."

In 2013 she graduated with a Bachelor degree in physical education, followed by a Postgraduate Diploma in the same subject.

Ms Cunningham who is of Ngati Kahungunu descent, is currently studying towards getting her Masters, with the eventual goal of returning back to the Hawke's Bay to set up a Maori youth programme.

"My goal is to build resilience and identity through engaging with the environment," she said.

She hoped to foster people's knowledge of their heritage and ancestral tales through the programme.

One example Ms Cunningham used was the regular trips she took with her nephews and nieces up their local maunga [ancestral mountain]: Te Mata peak.

"We tell stories, learn about the maunga, the forest...it's more about understanding of the mountain and learning about yourself."

She said the subsequent physical benefits were just an associated outcome.

Ms Cunningham attributed her mother's support, her teachers at Hastings Girls College and her natural reluctance to lose to shaping her "academic character".

Key findings

• More than half of Maori graduates were the first in their family to graduate from University
• One third are parents
• 70% are female
• Maori represent 7 per cent of the total graduate pool

Areas of study
• Humanities/education: 50%
• Commerce: 18%
• Science/engineering: 15%
• Health: 11%
• Law: 3%
• PhD: 2%

Desired areas of work
• Education and training: 28%
• Health care and medical: 17%
• Government: 12%