Te Kāhui Amokura exists to ensure that Māori can access and are welcomed into our universities (Photo supplied).

Te Kāhui Amokura, senior Māori leaders from New Zealand’s eight universities, argue that the drive to provide trades employment and training opportunities shouldn’t be at the expense of Māori in higher education.

 

The world as we know it has been changed, first by the global pandemic of Covid-19 and then by the Black Lives Matter movement that illuminated racial discrimination around the world. Both highlighted inequities in and across our systems. 

Before the pandemic, the gap in Aotearoa between the privileged and those who are not was becoming increasingly obvious. Such inequalities particularly affect Māori, Pacific, and disabled communities. 

Whether or not the responses to the pandemic and BLM will address Māori aspirations of fairness, justice and equity remains to be seen. But if history tells us anything, it’s that we’re best not to leave the solutions to others.

As Te Kāhui Amokura, a committee of senior Māori leaders from the eight New Zealand universities, we exist to ensure Māori can access and are welcomed into our universities, so that they can then go on to inform, shape, manage and lead in the world. 

When this year’s budget was announced, giving a $1.6 billion boost to trades training, we had grave concerns that the career aspirations for Māori were being funnelled into a trades economy through vocational training rather than considering a full range of possible educational and work options for the future. 

For example, eight percent of Māori are studying at a bachelors level while 20 percent are in some form of vocational training. 

Focusing education priorities and investment on only one area of our sector will just further widen the inequities that we’re already facing as a population. 

The link between education, job opportunities and incomes are well established. While we’re strongly supportive of the initiative to make vocational training more attractive and accessible, the investment in shovel-ready projects and making trades training more attractive to Māori youth harks back to a time where Māori were expected to only be able to perform manual labour. 

We’re committed to ensuring that Māori hands continue to have a firm grip on all the levers needed to transform our lives — not just on the shovels. 

University study has long played a critical role in supporting the achievement of Māori aspirations. Tens of thousands of our Māori university graduates have made significant contributions to society. Many have gone on to lead, advocate, consult, and drive innovative opportunities in our communities and in the Māori economy. 

It will be years before we learn the full effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on Māori in higher education. We’re facing a more diverse and unexpected future, and we need people who can adapt and respond critically to situations, as well as those with deep knowledge and expertise to respond to technical and emerging challenges. 

Covid has disrupted Māori students’ study and increased their uncertainty about the future. Job losses in many whānau have meant that some students have had to become the breadwinner for their families, forcing them to put on hold their dreams of undergraduate or advanced degrees. 

For others, the experience of attempting to continue their studies while the country was in lockdown — when anxiety and stress levels were high, and online learning was difficult — all became too much. 

Almost three-quarters of Māori students who responded to a recent survey commissioned by Te Mana Ākonga, the national Māori tertiary students’ association, felt the Covid-19 lockdown had had a detrimental impact on their education. From issues with access to computers and reliable internet connections, to the challenges of social isolation, and the difficulties of transitioning to fully online course delivery, the students described a myriad of ways in which their learning was made harder. 

As our universities head into the crunch time of final assessments and course grading, we’re closely monitoring our Māori university student withdrawals and failures and the flow-on effects for future enrolments. 

In order to gain the range of skills and knowledge that we require for our future, we need more Māori graduates across the full gamut of degree subjects. The drive to provide trades employment and training opportunities is a short-term fix, which shouldn’t be at the expense of what we as Māori need — a longer term solution to thriving in the new Covid-19 environment. 

Covid-19 has focused our minds in ways that often occurs following periods of major disruption — and Aotearoa has certainly had our share in the past 18 months. 

Each of these has the potential to reinforce negative stereotypes of who we are as a country and to undermine the cohesion of our shared values. Instead, we want to take the opportunity to bring Māori expertise to the fore. 

We have amazing Māori scholars doing critical work for our post-Covid-19 world and contributing to a changing knowledge system that is confronting the scientific, social, environmental and economic challenges facing our communities. 

But they are constantly having to fight for their voices and expertise to be acknowledged. We want to contribute to not just the conversation but also the decisions being made for Aotearoa New Zealand. 

And while the future of a post-pandemic, less discriminatory Aotearoa is being explored, there is now an opportunity to look at how universities can contribute in more meaningful ways to our Māori communities and society. 

Part of challenging the return-to-“normal” narrative is looking within our own institutions.  

Some argue that the inability of our universities to adjust or position themselves as flexible and responsive institutions to our society has resulted in their disengagement, and worse still, to them being sidelined in wider education discussions. 

Quite often, universities are constrained by institutional and legislative frameworks and requirements to meet surplus or full-time student targets. 

What could a post-Covid university model based on a true Te Tiriti o Waitangi partnership look like? Are our universities acting as monuments that keep us held to our colonial past? How can we nurture great Māori thinkers and leaders of our future, who can play a key role in our country’s evolution? And how can universities truly contribute to whānau and iwi development? 

Poverty, it’s said, is the enemy of education. It’s also the enemy of a just, healthy, civil and safe society. If poverty might be considered to be the absence of wealth, how therefore can we reimagine a new order built on the principles of tika, pono and aroha?  

Calls for a return to a pre-pandemic normal must be rejected if we are to address many of this country’s underlying economic, social and environmental failings.  

These failings find their origins in privilege, entitlement, and a simple lack of compassion. At the extreme, racism can be found lurking. And we in New Zealand are not immune to extremes. But our tūpuna taught us to shape our futures by learning from our past — kei mua, kei muri. 

The fight for Māori to be able to go to university, the generations of Māori graduates, and the whānau and communities who have benefited from the doctors, engineers, lawyers, language experts and other graduates, can’t be forgotten. 

Like our ancestors before us, we navigate uncharted waters to find a better future. University education is critical to this mission for us as whānau, hapū and iwi, as community members and as citizens of a privileged little country in the Pacific.

 

Te Kāhui Amokura: Dr Darryn Russell, chair of Te Kāhui Amokura, Assistant Vice-Chancellor Māori, Pacific and Equity, University of Canterbury. Professor Cindy Kiro, Pro Vice-Chancellor Māori University of Auckland. Professor Pare Keiha, Pro Vice-Chancellor Māori Advancement, Auckland University of Technology. Dr Sarah-Jane Tiakiwai, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Māori, University of Waikato. Professor Meihana Durie, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Māori, Massey University. Professor Rawinia Higgins, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Māori, Victoria University of Wellington. Dr Dione Payne, Assistant Vice-Chancellor Māori and Pacific, Lincoln University. Tuari Potiki, Director Māori Development, University of Otago. With guest contributor Associate Professor Dr Meegan Hall, Victoria University of Wellington.

© E-Tangata, 2020

Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.

If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.