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Equity, change and we the university



We are coming to a decision point of fundamental importance to how we understand our work and ways in New Zealand universities. Do we value Māori and Pasifika students only because they are so often represented as being needy, underachieving, and disadvantaged minority groups, those who are the focus of government investment approaches geared to improving education outcomes? Or is there an alternative based on recognising the contribution of all to the university project of enabling higher education? If the value of Māori and Pasifika students is associated with funding imperatives and research opportunities to address need, then the job is to create the interventions for these groups until ‘the job is done’. The alternative view is that Māori and Pasifika peoples are integral to the very identity of the New Zealand university. If so, then closing disparity gaps is about ensuring success for all within the university, and so to be done at an accelerated pace in order to change the identity and ways of the university itself. Action is not merely an intervention for Others. Rather, there is a social contract between universities and the public, for equity and change for the public good.

I am in favour of accelerated change for better outcomes for Māori and Pasifika peoples. I think we all should be, for the advancement of communities and for the good of New Zealand. But when I hear some people talk, I hear confusion and hesitation about the way equity might be achieved. It is as if they are saying, ‘Is there any life in Mother University after equity comes to town?’ With government investment in universities geared to the expectation of Māori and Pasifika students achieving parity in participation and achievement,1 ‘they’ worry, ‘Is this going to shut down academic freedom and institutional autonomy?’ Counter to these concerns are the critical perspectives wherein culture, language and identity are understood to be assets, and knowledge creation and higher education are decolonised. Through these perspectives, the potential to expand how and what we know is brought into view.

Genuinely belonging in the university is an ongoing challenge that Māori and Pasifika peoples continue to face. This paper addresses this challenge by critically examining the importance of priority groups and equity targets for universities, and the social contract between universities and the public to achieve equity for Māori and Pasifika students. But at the broadest level, this paper is about who belongs in New Zealand universities. What we may have considered previously to be a matter for debate is no longer such. How we understand our work and ways in New Zealand universities is bound to how we value Māori and Pasifika students, and how in turn this changes the very identity and workings of the university.

Priority groups and targets

Universities have emerged as vital institutions of post-industrial democracies, taking on a range of social tasks. From an economic perspective, universities play a key role in the growth of the pool of skilled New Zealanders, in turn raising overall productivity and our ability to compete internationally. Lifting university participation and achievement by Māori and Pasifika students, is crucial both for this task and in and of itself. The university remains in close relation to its social context.

Our universities also need to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse population. In New Zealand, the ethnic make-up of the 15-39 year age group, the group most likely to participate in tertiary education, is shifting to include higher proportions of Māori, Pasifika and Asian peoples of that age. Completion rates show that the university sector is not serving some groups of students well.2 Pasifika students have the lowest completion rates of any group. The long-term performance of the university system depends on its ability to teach a broader cross section of students within our New Zealand public.

The changing demographic of New Zealand has been described as the greatest challenge for higher education. As Middleton indicates, the net effect is that those population groups which have traditionally provided successful students are being ‘replaced by increasing numbers of students from groups that are traditionally underserved by higher education’.3 It is clear that it takes an entire education system, including schooling, to address issues of equity and access in higher education. Even so, there is evidence that Māori and Pasifika people are attaining disproportionately poor results through the tertiary education system.4 Universities that respond to the changing demographics will recognise that the supply of students who have conventionally proceeded into higher education will diminish and be replaced by increased numbers of non-traditional (under-represented, underserved, minority) students. Only an education system that can succeed with this wave of new students will be able to respond both to the challenge of increasing diversity in the community and the needs of a new economy.

So what benefit would come from greater responsiveness? If we look at Pasifika peoples, the first point is one of community. More Pasifika peoples are born in New Zealand than overseas, which means that Pasifika peoples can no longer be considered an immigrant population.5 Hence, the advancement of Pasifika peoples in higher education is nationally relevant and is about our New Zealand community. The Pacific population is youthful, with 38% (100,344 people) aged under 15 years. By 2030, Pasifika people will be one out of every eight in the younger (15–39 years) workforce. But current unemployment figures show that too few Pasifika secure jobs and independent income.6 In Auckland, 21% of working age Pasifika peoples are unemployed, compared with an Auckland unemployment rate of 7.5%.7

For New Zealand to do well in the future, New Zealand’s Pasifika students need to do well in schooling and in tertiary education today.8 The link between degree qualifications and employment in higher paid, more sustainable jobs is well-established.9 So, too, is the link between Pasifika higher education and New Zealand’s social and economic future. If, by 2021, Pacific peoples’ wage incomes are similar to the incomes of non- Pasifika people, the benefits to the New Zealand economy would be in the order of $4 to $5 billion in 2001 price terms.10 The focus on priority groups in universities is vitally important to student supply for universities and to New Zealand society overall.

The social contract

Borrowed from political theory, the metaphor of a social contract emphasises the democratic role of the university. As Fallis has argued, this social contract recognises that the university helps to meet needs and aspirations right across democratic society and is accountable to all its citizens.11 If one part of that citizenry is benefitting more from the ways in which a university operates, then that is not democracy for all. It is a malfunction—if stated generously. So far, the university approach has not served Māori and Pasifika as well as it has served other learners. The Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) reported in 2009 that ‘evidence shows that students of Pacific ethnicity experience clear disadvantages within the New Zealand tertiary education’.12

The relationship of the university to society operates much like a contract— setting out the responsibilities of the university, the financial support to be given to the university, and the degree of autonomy and freedom grated to the university in order to fulfill these responsibilities. It was after all the public who gave these freedoms, and it is the public and their government who decide in each era how much they want to control universities. The ultimate legitimacy of the university—for its many tasks and privileged standing—comes from the people in a democratic society.

This social contract is formulated over time and shaped by history, and by the needs and wants of each era. It embodies more than an unwritten arrangement: it can find expression in public funding, and the basic principles of the social contract for New Zealand universities can be seen in the Tertiary Education Strategy (2010-2015):13

  • provide New Zealanders of all backgrounds with opportunities to gain world-class skills and knowledge;
  • raise the skills and knowledge of the current and future workforce to meet labour market demand and social needs;
  • produce high-quality research to build on New Zealand’s knowledge base, respond to the needs of the economy and address environmental and social challenges; andenable Māori to enjoy education success as Māori.

The stated priorities involve increasing the number of Māori students enjoying success at higher levels and increasing the number of Pasifika students achieving at higher levels.

In practice, this means that the TEC’s expectation is that Tertiary Education Organisations will ensure that Māori and Pasifika participation and achievement will be at least on a par with other learners. The Guidance is very clear:

During 2013 to 2015, New Zealand’s tertiary education system needs to make a bigger contribution to economic growth and it needs to do it within current levels of government investment. This means focusing on outcomes and raising performance—especially for Māori and Pacific learners, where the biggest gains are to be made. New Zealand has planned for greater success and invested public funds accordingly, some $2.7 billion annually. The tertiary sector investment is geared explicitly to the expectation of parity at least, participation and achievement at all levels by Māori and Pasifika students.14

The expectation of equity and reduced disparities is consistent with legislation for participation and success of all. Through the Education Act 1989, the University Councils have explicit responsibilities for supporting the success of all:

181 Duties of councils

It is the duty of the council of an institution, in the performance of its functions and the exercise of its powers,—
… (c) to encourage the greatest possible participation by the communities served by the institution so as to maximise the educational potential of all members of those communities with particular emphasis on those groups in those communities that are under-represented among the students of the institution.Hence, through both legislation and investment plans, universities are contracted to expand and increase participation and achievement.15

A social contract is consistent with the obligations universities have to the societies that support them. Even so, some within universities may feel that the pulse of their autonomy is under threat by linking national strategy, in the interests of the public good, to institutional strategy. In truth, universities enjoy more independence than they often themselves admit. Consequently, the public does demand greater accountability. After stepping down as president of Stanford University, Donald Kennedy wrote in Academic Duty that there has been an internal failure to come to grips with responsibility in the university.16 Having been given a generous dose of academic freedom, we haven’t taken care of the other side of the bargain. As he argued, the struggle concerning universities has little or nothing to do with political positions, or with relativism or race relations: ‘…It has to do with how we see our duty and how our patrons and clients see it. If we can clarify our perception of duty to gain public acceptance of it, we will have fulfilled an important obligation to the society that nurtures us’.17 Universities remain in relation to society.

The relationship between this duty to society and economic imperatives has been critically examined, exposing the need to remain connected to democratic purpose of higher education. Such purpose is essential if the university is to expand understandings of who belongs within its institution. Nussbaum argues that thinking about the aims of education has gone disturbingly awry both in the United States and abroad.18 With similarities to New Zealand’s tertiary education investment approach, Nussbaum sees that by being focused on national economic growth, institutions increasingly treat education as though its primary goal were to teach students to be economically productive rather than to think critically and become knowledgeable and empathetic citizens. This shortsighted focus on profitable skills erodes our ability to criticize authority, reduces our sympathy with the marginalized and different, and damages our competence to deal with complex global problems. The loss of these basic capacities jeopardizes the health of democracies and the hope of a decent world. In response, Nussbaum argues that we must resist efforts to reduce education to a tool of the gross national product. Rather, we must work to connect the curriculum of study at universities to the intention for students to have the capacity to be true democratic citizens of their countries and the world.

Taken to its extension, Nussbaum’s argument could mean New Zealand universities changing what and how they teach and engage with students. This is not the same as the provision of remedial approaches framed as ‘academic support’ for at-risk students; a ‘clip on’ to mainstream approaches. This is about liberating university curriculum and teaching in ways that affirm the contribution of Māori and Pasifika as integral to its organizational purpose and identity. In so doing, the understanding of who belongs is expanded because the identity and practices of the university are changed.

In their study of Māori doctoral student experience, McKinley and colleagues described one such development.19 Their study found that Māori doctoral students in New Zealand universities face challenges not usually experienced by other doctoral candidates. After analysing data from 38 Māori doctoral students, the researchers concluded that universities need to consider ways to recognise and resource indigenous methodologies, including educating and resourcing ethics committees, so that they can provide good counsel to students embarking on research involving indigenous knowledges and communities. In addition, the supervisors themselves should take part in robust professional development if non-Māori advisors are working with Māori doctoral students. Crucially, the challenge for the institutions in which doctoral education takes place is both to create an environment supporting indigenous students to work at the interface of academic and traditional knowledges, and also to recognise their dual contributions to the advancement of their communities and the project of higher learning. A critically responsive approach to equity views Māori and Pasifika identity as intellectual assets. Practices of the university change not solely on the basis of need, but in response to the intellectual assets represented by students of colour.


Equity in universities is about changing understandings of who belongs at university and why. Neediness has been a historical reason for attention to Māori and Pasifika university participation and achievement. Although there is government funding currently linked to Māori and Pasifika participation and achievement, this alone is insufficient. A critically responsive approach to university strategy and planning recognises when the institution delivers for some yet not for all and makes changes to its practices; the onus being on the university to ensure more effective engagement with underserved students. Getting to parity at least, and at an accelerated pace, is core business for New Zealand universities.

When we hear the word ‘university’, the images that come to mind directly link to the people-facts we know about our own universities. For the University of Auckland, the image is of 2807 Māori, 3153 Pasifika, and a university in which Māori, Pasifika and Asian students combined out-number ‘European’ and ‘Other’ students combined.20 Our mind’s eye sees thousands of Māori and Pasifika students. This is our university public. We see too that a national strategy and legislation committed to equity in representation and outcomes, at all levels of university studies. We see the social contract with our communities and the public, and the duty therein. We can look at the intellectual and scientific leadership of Māori and Pasifika ancestors and contemporary scholars, and we see that Māori and Pasifika belong and lead in places of higher knowledge and learning. We see too the possibilities for expanding research through Māori and Pasifika ways of creating knowledge and advancing learning. We as Māori and Pasifika are integral to the identity of the university. We are not outreach groups attached to the university, or beside the university, as if for the time being only, to address neediness. We belong in places of higher education. At this time of change we say, ‘We belong in the university’.