Uni vows to fight legal challenge

The University of Otago is set to face court action over the way minority groups are given priority for entry into its medical school.

University leaders have vowed to fight the legal challenge, which is understood to argue for caps on preferential pathways (such as Maori and Pasifika), so that the number of students selected should not exceed their proportion of the population.

After weeks of discussion about whether caps should be brought in, university vice-chancellor Harlene Hayne and other leaders declared their opposition to the idea yesterday.

They also confirmed for the first time that the legal challenge has implications for the university’s Mirror on Society policy, which is part of a drive to boost the number of students from under-

represented groups.

University leaders had repeatedly denied a legal challenge was directly about the Mirror on Society policy or principles of equity in selection for the medical school.

Yesterday, a university spokeswoman admitted this was incorrect.

"The university has recently been provided an amended statement of claim which makes clear that the court will be asked to rule on more fundamental issues around the operation of the Mirror on Society policy than initially appeared to be the case."

The priority pathways in health sciences are Maori, Pasifika, rural, low socio-economic and refugee.

About half of the 2020 intake into second-year medicine came through them.

Prof Hayne, pro-vice-chancellor Paul Brunton, Maori development director Tuari Potiki and Pacific development director Tasileta Teevale issued a joint statement about the situation yesterday.

"Part of the context of the recent discussions is a current court challenge to the university’s regulations and processes for medical admissions.

"While the university rejects the criticism of its existing processes, the legal challenge has highlighted the importance of ensuring that all admission decisions — including those through Mirror on Society pathways — are transparent and legally robust," they said.

It is understood the university will be challenged about choosing to accept more students through the affirmative pathways than their proportion of the population.

"It has recently become clear that the challenge will argue that the university’s ability to admit students through Mirror on Society pathways [should be] limited by the proportions of relevant groups in society as a whole."

The possibility of caps was also raised in a university medical admissions committee discussion document last month but university representatives had not said where that idea came from.

A university spokeswoman appeared to link legal concerns with the idea of caps earlier this week.

"The possibility of change has been raised out of concern that the relevant regulations be transparent and that the university’s processes for admissions — including Mirror on Society admissions — are not susceptible to legal challenge."

University leaders have consistently argued no formal proposal to change the system was ever advanced.

The university has reaffirmed its commitment to the Mirror on Society policy and preferential pathways.

Leaders have now rejected caps.

"This principle — which would slow the rate at which a representative health workforce could be achieved — is not one that the university accepts and which it will strenuously oppose before the court.

"The Mirror on Society policy is a cornerstone of admissions to health sciences professional programmes at Otago and we are justifiably proud of it. We are not stepping away from the commitment it represents."


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