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The proposal to cap Maori and Pacific students entering the University of Otago’s Medical School will not come as a surprise to those familiar with the history of Maori education in New Zealand. The "Mirror on Society" selection policy prioritises the admission of underrepresented groups into Medical School, and while Maori get most of the attention, other groups who benefit from this system include those from Pacific, rural and refugee backgrounds, as well as students from low decile schools.
The policy has been responsible for the increase of Maori students able to train as medical doctors and has become so successful that someone, somewhere decided that there are now too many Maori entering Otago Medical School.
Often the blame for poor educational outcomes has been laid at the feet of Maori because we have been seen as lacking ambition or the required work ethic to succeed. What has often happened and has often been more true, is that what has been missing is genuine opportunity. When Maori do get genuine opportunity and begin to take advantage of that opportunity, we very often find that the authorities responsible for supporting that success suddenly begin to backtrack. Maori are allowed to make progress, but not to the point where real change can take place, and never if it makes Pakeha nervous about maintaining their privilege and dominance.
Many people know that the first Maori to graduate as a medical doctor in New Zealand was Te Rangi Hiroa, also known as Sir Peter Buck. He was one of a group of Maori students who had done well at university after attending Te Aute College, a Maori boarding school. These included many famous Maori leaders such as Sir Apirana Ngata, Sir Maui Pomare and Dr Edward Pohatu Ellison. What is not widely known is how Pakeha responded to Maori academic success.
Although no-one officially asked "why are these Maori competing with us economically and professionally?", questions were raised in Parliament as to what subjects were being taught at Te Aute. Within 18 months of Te Rangi Hiroa’s graduation, a commission was set up to investigate Te Aute College and its curriculum.
In those days there were certain subjects that you needed to pass in order to enter university, and Te Aute College had a deliberate policy of teaching subjects such as Latin, algebra and geometry that enabled Maori students to matriculate. Submissions to the commission included men such as George Hogben, the inspector-general of schools, who recommended the dropping of these academic subjects. Instead he advocated for Te Aute students to spend one third of the school week on agriculture and woodwork, as he wanted to help Maori realise "the dignity of manual labour". The inspector of Native Schools at the time argued that education was to prepare Maori for life in the Maori village and not to "compete with Europeans in trade and commerce".
The response of Maori parents was that they could teach their children to plough at home and what they wanted for their sons was an academic education so that they could "compete with English boys in the higher walks of life". However, Maori parents lost the battle and Te Aute was forced to drop the academic subjects that created a pathway to university for those Maori students.
This removing or decreasing of opportunity is not unusual. In the early 2000s Te Wananga o Aotearoa had a huge increase in the number of Maori enrolling in tertiary courses, so much so that The New Zealand Herald reported that "government funding spiralled from $3.9million in 1999 to a reported $239million in 2003-04".
The numbers were so large that it caused a bit of panic amongst the government. Their reply wasn’t to celebrate the large numbers of Maori being attracted to these courses; instead, it was to cap them (that word again), reducing numbers by almost a half. The accessibility led by Maori institutions such as Te Wananga o Aotearoa meant that in 2004 one-third of all Maori women over the age of 17 were enrolled at that time in tertiary education.
Yes you read that correctly, one-third of all Maori women were enrolled in tertiary education.
There were some problems with the delivery of some programmes because of the rapid growth in numbers, and there were also criticisms that many of the programmes Maori were enrolled in were lower-level ones.
However, these are often gateway qualifications into higher qualifications, targeting Maori who had missed out on advanced education.
Wananga courses, in particular, are often stepping-stone courses. In fact, the first tertiary study that I ever did was at a Wananga in 1993. Since 2004 the rates of Maori participation in tertiary education have not recovered, with rates almost 20% lower in 2018 than in 2004.
There are numerous other examples of opportunity denied or removed. In 1874 my great-great-grandfather was one of the first Maori boarders at Auckland Grammar School, funded mostly by a government scholarship. Within six months he won a school prize and a year later the senior prize for geometry. At one of his prizegivings the speaker had warned that "the boys of European descent must be careful or they would be outstripped by them [Maori] in the race for knowledge".
However, within 18 months it appears that the missionaries who controlled his scholarship had directed him to attend a church school, where the mornings were spent on academic work and afternoons on gardening and farming.
He appears to have left that school within six months to go work on a Waikato river boat.
When genuine opportunity arises Maori have shown that we do have the ambition and work ethic to take those opportunities. It is not making the gains that is the problem, it is holding them.
The scaling back of opportunity for Maori medical students is just one of a long line of initiatives that have been removed or scaled back when they have proved to be too successful.
It seems that Maori are not only permitted, but expected, to have lower standards of achievement.
We can be the poor struggling colonised people deserving of compassion and charity, but politicians ensure that their Pakeha constituents should never be obliged to see us as equals or, heaven forbid, to be outstripped by Maori in the race for knowledge.
■ Dr Anaru Eketone is a senior lecturer at the University of Otago’s social and community work programme.