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Prof Peter Crampton. Photo: Gregor Richardson
Prof Peter Crampton. Photo: Gregor Richardson
Merit should be redefined and universities should take greater notice of indigenous self-determination and "a lived understanding of socioeconomic adversity", academics from the University of Otago argue.

White supremacy, privilege and "meritocracy" were stubborn hurdles to a more just approach to student selection, public health specialist Prof Peter Crampton and colleagues contend in the New Zealand Medical Journal today.

"Current health policies prioritise much greater Maori participation in the health workforce," they wrote.

"However, the vision for a health workforce where the entry door is open and where Maori participate fully is a very long way from being realised.

"The key to this door is in the hands of the education sector."

Meritocracy referred to the idea that power and authority should be vested in individuals on the basis of talent, effort and achievement.

Universities could better serve the needs of society by redefining merit to be a concept that placed value on indigenous perspectives and a lived understanding of socioeconomic adversity, the Otago academics said.

Students from adverse socioeconomic backgrounds had skills, strengths, knowledge, experiences and attributes "that mean we cannot treat them the same as students from privileged educational backgrounds, but they should be able to benefit from and contribute to higher education, as an entitlement of citizenship".

"By defining those attributes and experiences as meritorious, as opposed to unfortunate liabilities, we welcome into our institutions students who can offer much to our universities and to society."

Prof Crampton was assisted by Zoe Bristowe, who manages Maori health development programmes, and public health physician Prof Jo Baxter, and they all work in Kohatu, the Centre for Hauora Maori at the University of Otago.

They used the university’s medical programme as a case study.

The university had historically resisted proactively implementing effective strategies to expand the training of Maori doctors, dentists, physiotherapists and other health workers, they said.

A growing number of Maori medical graduates had emerged since a "pro-equity" selection model was brought in, "illustrating that, even when the structures of opportunity are hostile to Maori, it is indeed possible to achieve change".

The authors said securing necessary resources for transformative change was one of the tasks of leadership.

"In practice, this meant that resources for the support of Maori staff and students were a key area of focus."

Educational institutions were doomed to carry on "swimming around in a soup of conceptual muddle and prevailing meritocratic ideologies" if they lacked understanding of Maori histories, strong anti-racism theory and critiques of prevailing ideologies.

The authors argued principles of meritocracy and the ideology of white supremacy had ensured barriers to higher education remained in place, although well camouflaged.


'Meritocracy referred to the idea that power and authority should be vested in individuals on the basis of talent, effort and achievement.' The clue is in the name.

It is not up to universities or anyone else to redefine 'Merit... [to] take greater notice of indigenous self-determination and "a lived understanding of socioeconomic adversity".' Words get their meaning from common usage not by university dictat. Similarly, some things that are unfortunate liabilities and barriers to further education will be so whether they're defined as meritorious or not.

The headline no doubts overstates a well-meaning but patronising attempt to encourage the adoption of the experience of socioeconomic adversity as a criterion for entrance to higher education. But sooner or later this cohort of individuals will have to face the test of serving the communities they are trained for. This test is a test of merit.

The typical postmodernist (Marxist) argument presented by a kind old soul full of good intentions.
If you are in need of cancer treatment or are pregnant and things are not going smoothly or your child has an illness, who do you want to provide that treatment ?
The person most capable with a proven track record of success or the person with the same ethnic background as you?
Unless you are some sort of self sacrificing, racist, ideolog, I think the choice is obvious.
Competency has nothing to do with race
The arrogance of academia also astounds me
To improve health outcomes we need plumbers, electricians, builders, factory workers, engineers, truck drivers.... the list is endless and medicine can only extend life when all these other components are in place
It was only after "after the Great Stink of 1858" that London's elite looked out of their ivory towers and decided modern plumbing was a good idea
Why can't our elites learn from history?
Is it because it's English history? That surely, is a racist view of learning!
It's the entitlement / victim / perpetrator narrative that has caused the calamities of the modern world
This can only produce the same outcomes !!!

Sadly this approach is simply dumbing down the product of Otago. I have seen too many admitted under this approach struggle whilst excellent applicants have been denied. Personally I don't care what ethnicity someone who treats me is but I do expect the highest level of competence. Argue against this approach and you are labelled racist but it does seem a race based system. The real issue is ensuring the necessary level of education prior to entry to university then all would be on an equal footing.