Pita Sharples frustration misplaced

It’s easy to understand Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples’s frustration last week when he called for Maori to have open entry to university. Maori educational statistics have been poor for a long time and have worsened since the 1970s. As a group they are more likely to leave school without qualifications; less likely to gain entry to university; less likely to go if they do gain entry and more likely to drop out before completing a degree.

There have been numerous studies, several pilot programmes, some extra money here and there and much talking but the problem persists. The only significant relief recently has come with the development of NCEA assessment which has quite rightly valued skills and knowledge not formerly recognised in single high-stakes written exams. Students from low-income communities have benefited and the achievement has been real despite the sometimes justified claims of poor quality assessments.

The reasons for the problem of Maori underachievement have been hotly debated. On the one hand are claims of racism and cultural insensitivity in higher educational institutions dominated by Pakeha. Even the most liberal Pakeha can be patronisingly racist unintentionally but in a way which damages and denigrates.

The counter to Sharples’s call has been predictable and based on ethnocentrism – seeing the world from one’s own ethnic perspective to the exclusion of other views. The thoughtless whinging on talk-back radio claims everyone has the same chance at school and if Maori kids want to go to university they should just front up, do the work and be accepted or rejected alongside everyone else. This view contains the assumption that everyone begins the steeplechase to university from the same start line. However most Maori begin well behind the bunch and are forced to overcome many more obstacles. Their track is longer, the water jump is deeper and the fences are so high they must be scaled rather than hurdled. Their lane lacks the smooth running surface of most other competitors.

Some criticism of Sharples has been much more valuable. There is compelling evidence that the main reason Maori are underrepresented at university is because most come from low-income communities and this factor has a much greater impact than race.

Consider women for example. For most of the last century they were largely absent from university through direct barriers and what we now see as archaic social attitudes. Women now are frequently the majority in university courses so can the same change in social attitudes towards Maori participation make the same gains here? Unfortunately no. It is young women from the middle and upper classes who dominate women’s participation at university while young females from low-income communities remain as badly represented as do other groups which predominate in poorer communities.

Similarly Maori who do enter and succeed at university for the most part come from middle class backgrounds. The overt racism of the past is much diminished as are the attitudes which formerly prevented women attaining higher education.

Others in the Maori Party such as Te Ururoa Flavell have suggested pushing for the re-organisation of Maori colleges such as Hawkes Bay’s Te Aute College which produced so many parliamentary Maori leaders 100 years ago. The argument goes that this would provide a fillip for a Maori educational renaissance. These schools have lost their “elite” status because they have taken a broader range of Maori students which means that the single minded focus on narrow academic achievement has been lost. But this rehashes the same problem. Excluding working class Maori from such schools will improve the schools’ academic results but won’t improve the overall results for Maori. It will simply reinforce the argument that socio-economic status rather than race is the key to understanding Maori achievement levels in education.

So the question “why are Maori not entering university at the same rate as Pakeha?” has a simple answer. It’s because Maori predominate in the low-income communities where the educational success rate for everyone, Maori, Pacific, Pakeha and Asian, is much lower than for middle class communities or the children of our political and business elites.

So it’s very disappointing to see Pita Sharples blaming schools. This is unfair and based on sloppy thinking. Most schools agonise over Maori achievement and have put in place numerous policies and programmes to try to ensure Maori kids don’t fall through the cracks.

Making the situation worse was a decision last year by Auckland University to restrict entry even to students who meet the criteria to enrol. This will impact harder on the very students Pits Sharples is talking about. Often they work hard to scrape through the entry criteria only to now face yet another hurdle from the gatekeepers to higher education.

But most importantly the way forward in education is to redirect the frustration over race into determination to reduce income inequality across New Zealand.