University decision will hit those with most to gain – and lose

A few days ago I ran into three ex-students of mine from Auckland’s Tangaroa College.

When I left the school two years ago they were in the fifth form. Now they have finished their Level 3 NCEA exams and all three young women have applied for tertiary education courses. Two are planning to attend Auckland University, one to do a Bachelor of Arts and the other a degree in health science.

They were excited but nervous about the prospect of university. It is a fraught step from the protective, familiar school environment where teacher-student relationships are the focus of learning to a huge impersonal education institution 50 times bigger than their school. For these young Pacific Island students it will be more difficult because despite Auckland being the largest Polynesian city in the world the university has just a tiny proportion of Pacific students. And many of the Pacific students enrolled there are from middle-class families and this difference in social class is typically greater than a difference in ethnic background.

Tangaroa College is in Otara at the heart of a low-income community. When I arrived there to teach in 2000 there were three or four students each year qualifying for university entry. We put in place a programme aimed to increase achievement and enrolments at university.

It was clear the various mentoring programmes were not working. Typically these programmes link up young (usually Pakeha) professionals from the inner city to meet and interact with senior Maori and Pacific students where they talk goals and future pathways. Our students got a variety of good experiences from the relationships but educationally it made little difference. One of the main problems was the lack of support from the student peer group. There was no common experience relating to university and unwittingly their friends were discouraging them by making them feel outsiders.

The programme at Tangaroa focused instead on the peer group as a whole and at a much earlier stage. Bus trips to Auckland University for large numbers of Year 9 and 10 students were organised at the end of each year where university departments had these students sit in lecture theatres, perch on stools in biology labs peering into microscopes and spending sessions on computers using the latest sophisticated software to design an engineering marvel.

The aim was to demystify university and put it on the educational radar screen from the outset of secondary school. Many would never go to university but they provided support for those who would through having a shared common experience of what university meant. Parent support was engaged with the school organising evenings with specific invitations to parents and wider family to find out about future university study for their young 13 or 14-year-olds. In the middle of winter 200 parents and family would come to hear from university staff and ex-students of Tangaroa now at university. Parents themselves began to take on board and think through the implications of university for their children and families for the first time.

Weekly visits from current university students (organised and paid for by the university) to work with students in science classes kept up the momentum and our students could see that these “brainy” students were really no different to them.

Over a number of years the programme gathered momentum such that 29 students were planning university enrolment for the 2008 academic year.

They face huge problems and while I don’t know the dropout rate it will be high. I’ve known families unable to sustain the cost even when the student gains a prestigious full fees scholarship. The daily bus trip to Auckland University from South Auckland alone costs over $2000 in a year.

Last Monday, Auckland University made the shameful decision to put another barrier in the path of these students. From 2009 the university says it will restrict entry to all its degree courses even for students who have qualified for entry to university. Students from schools in low-income areas will be hit the hardest because they are more likely than most to be in the group who currently scrape though at entry level.

These New Zealand kids with the greatest capacity to benefit themselves and their families through university education are to be sacrificed while no restrictions are planned for foreign students. As a sop to criticism the university says it will conduct an investigation into the effects of its decision. An institution which served its community would have done so well before, but not here. The guardians of privilege on the Auckland University Council are above such trifles.

I left my three ex-students all promising faithfully they would visit me next year in the first week at university in the inner-city office where I work. They should be OK, but there will be fewer following in their footsteps from Otara.