Niu Sila / New Zealand is an interesting nation. With a large indigenous Maori population, and a diversifying multi-cultural citizenry, there are constant debates about the place of Maori (and other minorities including Pacific peoples) in modern Niu Sila.
The Maori Party, currently in co-alition with the National Government, recently stirred up the radio talk-back red-necks with a call by co-leader Dr Pita Sharples to allow open access for Maori students into tertiary education.
Of course that’s not all he said, but that’s all the mainstream media picked up to get their revenue tills ringing. Dr Sharples also said:
“My speech made clear that educational under-achievement by Maori students is obvious at school. That is why the Government allocated an extra million to expand the Kotahitanga programme in secondary schools, and almost million to extend the 20-hours free early childhood education to kohanga reo and playcentres,” said Dr Sharples.
There is no doubt there is underachievement by Maori and Pacific students in education.
The Starpath Project at Iunivesite o Aukilani / The University of Auckland has warned in its report that many Maori and Pacific students may not make it to university because they are making ill-informed NCEA subject choices. The study reports anecdotally on students who aspired to tertiary education but chose vocational subjects instead of academic ones. It found parents did not understand NCEA so were ill-equipped to advise their children on subject choice, and the wide range of subjects available under NCEA meant students were being diverted from the narrow range of subjects which lead to tertiary success.
This is supported by other programmes I have been involved with, that too many schools with predominantly Maori and Pacific students are under-resourced (and sometimes mismanaged) with poor quality of teaching, offering limited subjects that would increase the chances of the students to get into tertiary education, instead offering easier vocational subjects. Furthermore, many of these vocational subjects may give a student enough NCEA credits, but in order to get into many tertiary institutions the credits need to be ranked, which many vocational subject credits are not.
Dr Sharples states “But the point is: what can universities do to overcome the crisis? It is not good enough simply to blame schools.”
Dr Sharples also said “Wananga have transformed Maori aspirations for tertiary education, by making courses easily accessible, and providing a kaupapa Maori learning environment. So will the universities respond, by stepping outside conventional thinking, and embracing new approaches?”
A wananga is a type of tertiary education provider that provides education in a Maori cultural context. Yet mainstream New Zealand (and some Pacific people) are up in arms about it, saying it’s racist, it’s segregation etc. Those arguments only attempt to hide the differences between peoples. By trying to say we are all the same, we conceal the inequalities that do exist between people. There are structural inequalities inherent in our society that have many Maori and Pacific peoples starting at a disadvantage.
This isn’t purely politicking, but it’s statistically evidenced. If you go to a high decile school the probability of gaining University Entrance is higher than a low decile school. Where do most Maori and Pacific people’s live? In low decile school areas. How is that fair, that just because you are born in a area that has crap schools, thereby affecting your probability of gaining a tertiary education?
Again, from a mathematical point of view, ethnicity is the lowest common denominator when assessing on how to spread the limited public funds into education (and health etc). It’s not a permanent characteristic, but it’s the most effective way to target disadvantaged groups: through targeting ethnic groups that dominate the poor socio-economic statistics.
Looking further ahead, with large youthful populations and higher fertility rates, Maori and Pacific people’s will make up the majority of the future workforce of Niu Sila. Statistically, if this future workforce is born of a community that continues to fail in many academic areas, we will have a poorly skilled, poorly equipped workforce.
For the aging Palagi population, they should be worried. Statistically, they will make up the majority of the pensioner age group in the foreseeable future. The elderly population will need a productive highly skilled work force to keep paying the taxes that will pay for their pensions.
If we were all born into families with the same level of wealth, attend the same quality of schools, given the same opportunities, then yes, then we can argue it’s an individuals own fault for not working hard enough to get into a tertiary institution.
But that’s not reality. We do have poverty. We do have crap schools. We do have large concentrations of ethnic groups in low decile areas. There are a whole host of other reasons that should also be taken into consideration when we start criticising some-one for not ‘working hard enough’.
Many Iunivesite’s do have programmes and scheme’s in place to assist disadvantaged groups with access into degrees and support services while studying. But most people only point out the ethnic schemes: Maori and Pacific Island entry quota’s. They don’t point to the mature student quota’s or the people with disabilities’ quota, or the women’s quota. These are all disadvantaged groups, that the Iunivesite’s have identified as having under-representation in doctors, lawyers, engineers etc.
Many degrees have limited spaces. To limit the number of student’s entering the degree the Iunivesite artificially creates a cut-off point, for example to get into a law degree student’s must have a A- average. But that’s not to say a person with a B+ average is any less capable of completing that law degree than an A- student, it’s just that a line had to be drawn. In fact the Iunivesite o Aukilani has chopped and changed the entry level for Law school many times over the last few years. Therefore it is false to assume that students who enter a degree under a quota won’t be able to complete the degree.
Quota’s aren’t an easy ride to getting a degree. It’s providing an opportunity to participate in tertiary education, acknowledging the societal inequalities that prevent many people from those disadvantaged groups of gaining entrance into the degrees. Once in, they still have to meet the same level of academic excellence as everyone else, they still have to pass the same exams everyone else sits, they still have to prove themselves just like everyone else.
When a person graduates with a Iunivesite degree it’s because they earned it, bearing no consequence on the quality of that soon to be doctor or lawyer etc, since they all passed the same exams.
Dr Sharples also stated “I also called for universities to meet Maori educational needs half way, by interweaving kaupapa Maori into their own strong European academic traditions to create win-win outcomes for Maori and non-Maori students alike. A New Zealand education for all citizens should draw on the strengths of both Maori and European traditions and pedagogy.”
Doesn’t that sound like equality to you?
So when Dr Sharples called for open access for Maori students into tertiary education it’s not an attempt to create inequalities but to redress the existing inequalities (amongst other measures). After all, our futures depend on it…