Tighter rules for University Entrance, which caused a sharp drop in the exam's pass rate in 2014, have lifted pass rates of students who made it through to university.
A Ministry of Education study has found that 70.2 per cent of students who passed the tougher University Entrance (UE) requirements in 2014 passed at least 85 per cent of their papers in their first year at university.
This was up from 68.2 per cent in the last cohort before the exam was tightened.
Universities NZ director Chris Whelan said the tightening had succeeded in weeding out weaker students.
"We suggested that the literacy and numeracy standards be lifted because there were too many students that were getting to university who were not succeeding, or were struggling or dropping out," he said.
"We are very happy with the changes post-2014."
Although the 2 per cent lift in first-year pass rates seemed small, Whelan said it was significant.
"You wouldn't expect a massive change," he said. "Universities have pretty consistently been operating on 80 to 85 per cent pass rates for quite some time."
As well as tightening literacy and numeracy requirements, the 2014 changes required students to get at least 14 credits in at least three university-approved subjects, up from two approved subjects previously.
Students were also required to achieve Level 3 in the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA), which requires at least 60 credits at Level 3 and 80 credits overall.
Previously, a small number (2.4 per cent) of year 13 school-leavers were achieving UE but not NCEA Level 3. Only 32 per cent of them were passing at least 85 per cent of their first-year university papers, compared with 70 per cent of those who achieved both qualifications.
Alana Misselbrook, a 21-year-old University of Auckland criminology student, said students were given no warning the UE requirements were tightening when she sat it in 2014.
"I did have quite a few friends who didn't get through UE," she said.
"I had one friend who was getting merits and excellences in her course work. A lot of her course work was designs and stuff like that, and when it came to exams it just didn't work for her."
Misselbrook said university came as a shock.
"I feel like school didn't really prepare you for university," she said.
Year 13 students achieving UE dropped sharply from 51 per cent in 2013 to 45.5 per cent in 2014.
The pass rate had recovered, but was still only 49.4 per cent last year. It is now back to pre-2014 levels in the wealthiest three deciles but is still below 2013 rates in middle and low-decile schools.