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Ko te manu e kai ana i te mātauranga, nōna te ao: Māori, tertiary study & the future

Coming across a Māori student at the Massey Wellington campus is a rare sight – I almost get a fright every time I pass a fellow Māori in the hallway. There were nearly 30,000 students enrolled at Massey last year, and around 3000 of them identified as Māori. With more support networks in place, we may see a future for Massey which has a greater intake of Māori students across all three campuses and initiatives in place to overcome the many barriers that some Māori face when entering university.

Unlike many of my own Māori friends, I was lucky to have had the support from my parents and family who encouraged me to pursue tertiary education. The question they asked me was not “what would you like to do after school?” Rather, it was “what university have you chosen?” This was not to say they forced me into it or that they only gave me one option – they would have been just as happy for me to stay around, get a job and have their little girl stay at home for as long as possible. But they also saw a future for me that didn’t involve a career that couldn’t exercise my skills. They believed that I amounted to more than the small-town work up for grabs when I left school; more than the any-money-is-good-money mentality that consumed many of my Māori peers; more than the troubling statistics of Māori living off social welfare; more than the many uneducated, culturally-detached Māori in prisons and more than the voice inside of me that said I might not be clever enough or talented enough to pursue my dream career. Their belief in me was everything and it gave me the courage to enter a world where I clearly would be among the minority: the world of university.

When you take away the existing financial and geographical constraints holding many Māori back from university, what is left is the underlying cultural barriers that often get overlooked. Traditionally, Māori people thought collectively and made decisions based on what was in the best interest of the family. Today, many Māori children are brought up not just by their parents, but also by their relatives and grandparents who, in many cases, may continue the cultural legacy in which thinking is whānau-orientated. For some Māori students, the decision to pursue university is largely dependent on what their whānau think is best.

Some Māori students spend their entire educated lives learning in total-immersion Māori speaking schools called kura kaupapa (Māori primary schools) or wharekura (Māori high schools). They grow up speaking Te Reo, reading and writing in Te Reo and being surrounded by a rich environment of Māori culture, artwork, traditions, language, values and people. With this kind of upbringing, you can imagine the kind of shock a wharekura student might find when transitioning into a mainstream environment such as university.

With these cultural barriers in mind, perhaps we need to consider some ways universities can allow these Māori students to feel comfortable and less isolated at university. This might include building more Māori support networks that consider engaging whole families, rather than just the student – or, allowing wharekura graduates to continue learning through the medium of Te Reo. These suggestions may only scratch the surface of what needs to be done to allow more Māori to enter university, but it’s a start.

To broaden the debate – to see what needs to be done to improve Māori engagement in tertiary education – it’s important to see what those Māori at the coalface think. I asked current Māori students from all three of Massey’s campuses two simple questions:

  1. What needs to be done to ensure a vibrant future for Māori at Massey?
  2. Why is it so important that Māori pursue tertiary education?

Shaun Henry is based on the Massey Manawatū campus, and believes the pathway to university needs to begin in the early stages of education.

“High schools need to be encouraging Māori from Year 9 about the importance of university and informing students to do subjects that allow them to prepare for tertiary studies.”

Henry says the only idea of a “Bachelor” for some Māori comes solely from the popular the Bachelor NZ.

“Māori and non-Māori in high schools need to be aware of what a Bachelor/Degree actually is and what it can do,” he says.

A major barrier, Henry believes, in holding Māori back from going to university, is the financial strain that goes along with it.

“Who wants to take out a massive loan in order to someday pay that back?” he asks. “Living on campus isn’t cheap, nor is living in the big cities where the universities are located.”

“The government should be pumping out more Māori scholarships.”

Other than these financial pressures, Henry also thinks Māori people need to recognise and see value in themselves in order to take the step towards higher education.

He quotes a line from global-speaker Joyce Mayer, who said: “You have not because you ask not.”

“It basically says that you don’t have things in life because you don’t ask or apply yourself in life.”

“Some Māori need to come to the mind-set that they are a part of the change in the future of New Zealand and in the wider world.”

Alex Terry, a fellow Manawatū student, says that universities need to promote more positive examples of Māori leaders who have found success following on from tertiary study.

Terry suggests role models like Apirana Ngata, Turi Carroll or even former Māori party leader Dr Pita Sharples could encourage young Māori by expressing what university did for them. By allowing Māori emblems of success to shine, he believes Māori youth will be inspired to do more with their lives.

“This will show Māori students that they can be more than lolly-pop men or tradesmen,” he says.

Sheree Thompson, from the Massey Albany campus, is a member of the Māori Association Te Waka O Nga Akonga Māori and supports the idea that Māori students need to be informed of their tertiary opportunities early on.

She carries with her the belief that if universities engage and support Māori students long before they reach the age of graduation from high school, then young Māori will already have an education path to follow.

“This needs to be at the end of Year 9 progressing to Year 10 in order to plant the seeds of choice, opportunities and pathways regarding tertiary education,” she says.

“Based on the past and present numbers regarding Māori students on campus, we need to continue to increase and sustain both academic support and pastoral care for Māori students.”

At Massey Wellington – which, based on last year’s figures, had only 305 Māori students enrolled – the extremely poor Māori presence can be easily felt on campus – especially when you are one of them.

Jasmine Beumelburg, a Wellington-based student, believes “there needs to be a bigger conversation about tertiary studies in the Māori community.”

She believes Māori have an important role in society and need to be more positively represented in all aspects of social life.

“Māori are underrepresented in so many professions,” she says.

“Professions that deal in healthcare, politics, law and so on would benefit from a Māori perspective.”

Beumelburg suggests that there is a need for more Māori support networks at Massey that would ultimately allow Māori students to deal with the culture shock of the university environment.

Remedee McRae, fellow Massey Wellington student, has similar views and wishes there were more cultural events to attend.

“In Wellington there aren’t many cultural groups or events that allow Māori and other cultural groups to meet,” she says. “There needs to be a better focus on community at the Wellington campus and bringing different cultural groups together.”

McRae understands that Māori are overly represented in poor health, criminal convictions and poor socioeconomic status in this country and that it is simply not good enough.

“If we are not educating ourselves to have a stronger position of power in society then how can we expect change, or how can we expect things to get better for us?” she asks.

“I want to see more Māori succeeding.”

These few Māori voices see a better future for Māori in higher positions within society. Their suggestions reflect some of the same attitudes held by Māori leaders who also look to the future with the same vision.

Minister of Education Hekia Parata is well aware of the opportunities tertiary study can give Māori.

“Tertiary education is a passport to higher skills, higher wages, higher productivity and higher growth for our economy.”

Parata says Māori need to realise their potential and know how to make a decision when they leave school.

A key focus for the minister has been to increase the number of 18-year-olds, particularly Māori, in passing NCEA Level 2 at school.

“The more Māori who have NCEA Level 2, the more Māori we will see going into further education or training,” she says.

Labour’s Kelvin Davis is a spokesperson for his party on Māori development, and he knows that there are many barriers holding many Māori back from university. He has pinpointed five key barriers holding Māori back from university: access, cost, culture, previous education success and relevance.

The first problem he points to indicates that some Māori are held back from tertiary study because of their means of access to university.

“Lack of public transport, cost of travel, or having to uplift from home and find accommodation in a city are all barriers to participation,” he says.

Statistics show that of the 3000 Māori students enrolled at Massey last year, over 60 per cent of those studied by distance. A move across the country to an environment stripped of any significant cultural feel and lacking in Māori numbers clearly doesn’t appeal to much of the Māori student body at Massey.

Distance learning may overcome some of the geographical constraints felt by Māori, but there are other problems with this style of learning, according to Davis, such as self-motivation, isolation of peer support, interpersonal interactions with tutors, and lack of university resources.

He suggests that a solution would be to make tertiary accessible in the regions and base the curricula on what is regionally relevant.

“More Māori experiencing tertiary success is vital for the whole country,” he says. “Māori have every right to be leaders in all fields – culture, business, politics, community leadership, educational leadership and entrepreneurialism.”

“Tertiary education is a great launch pad for Maori success.”

Māori Party MP Marama Fox does not hold back when it comes to seizing better opportunities for Māori. She places an onus on school career advisors to make the transition from school to university easier for Māori students.

She says that schools need to assist Māori and their whānau to create a clear plan that allows students to map out what they want to do, what they need to do to get there and who can support them.

We need to raise the expectations of Māori, says Fox.

“Teachers and professional educationalists must be the agents of change by adopting the asset model of ‘value add’ in their discussions of student success and achievement.”

Fox goes on, saying: “I have heard the discussions around the country of ‘if it weren’t for me they would all be in jail’, or ‘I’m here to help you because you’re all underachievers.’”

“We need to create expectation of educational pathways and build a generation of students with a brightness of hope.”

Fox thinks universities simply do not do enough to support many young Māori before entering university and sometimes fail to give them the information necessary to understand the tertiary environment before they start.

“I’ve seen it too many times; our people enrol into tertiary education and are left to sink or swim.”

Hopefully, with greater urgency on overcoming the barriers, Fox believes that Māori students will eventually go on to become one of many in a sea of successful Māori leaders.

Māori need to fill the gaps in many roles in society according to Fox. This doesn’t just include roles where Māori are currently represented negatively, like health and corrections, but also in other areas such as science, agriculture, horticulture or wherever else their interests may lie.

“We are kaitiaki (guardians) of our whenua, our lakes, our rivers and therefore need to utilise our own cultural knowledge with the wise application of knowledge,” says Fox.

All aspects of life and all roles in society are important, she says.

“It’s a no brainer, tertiary education immediately elevates your level of success in every social indicator:  income, health, justice, happiness and so on and so on.”

A no brainer – so long as there are Māori at university, there will be a vibrant future for Māori in prominent positions within society. Coming across a fellow Māori student on the Massey Wellington campus may not always be a rare sight, and perhaps even more rare will be the expectation of Māori to be underachievers or largely representative of those in crime, poor health and poverty.

So long as there are Māori at university, there will be a positive, educational pathway for other Māori to follow.

 

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