Back to top

Major Advance For Indigenous Involvement In NZ Tertiary Education

25 June 2009 | media

Towards Social Cohesion: The Indigenisation Of Higher Education In New Zealand

A summary of a paper presented by Professor Mason Durie, Assistant Vice-Chancellor (Māori and Pacific) and Professor of Māori Research and Development, Massey University, at the Vice-Chancellors’ Forum held in association with the 17th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, June 15-19, 2009.


Since 1999 indigenous participation in tertiary education in New Zealand has been transformed. From a position of relative exclusion, multiple levels of Māori participation have evolved, reflected in the curriculum, the student body, the academic workforce, tertiary education policy, the establishment of tribal tertiary education institutions, and indigenous research. The impacts of the transformation have not only been apparent in educational institutions but have also been evident across society, especially in relationship to Māori capability in the professions, a greater understanding between Māori and other New Zealanders, and a stronger sense of shared nationhood. A conclusion is that universities have the potential to demonstrate social cohesion and also to prepare graduates for leadership roles in promoting a society that can model inclusiveness without demanding assimilation.

The Parameters of Social Cohesion

Concerns about indigenous inclusion pose important questions about the roles of universities and the parameters of social cohesion. Primarily universities deal with the elaboration of knowledge and are concerned with human beings in all their manifestations. They seek to establish what is common to all groups and what distinguishes one group from another. Social cohesion is a reminder that universities do not exist in isolation of their own distinctive environments. If a main objective of social cohesion is to have a student body that is representative of the community, then an equity perspective can offer a relevant framework. Affirmative action programmes, the provision of scholarships, and focused support services will be useful. If, however, in addition to having students from all sections of the community, a social cohesion goal is about having a university-wide culture that can reflect the values, customs, interests, and aspirations of groups within society, then a framework broader than equity is necessary.

Higher education in New Zealand has adopted the second goal, at least in respect of Māori. Social cohesion has been defined broadly so that a Māori student presence is only one measure of inclusion. Other measures are reflected in university policies and programmes that provide space in the curriculum for Māori knowledge, campus facilities and events that endorse Māori culture and values, Māori staff on the faculty and within support services, research methodologies that incorporate Māori world views, and Māori participation in tertiary education governance and management. Further, the provision of multiple pathways towards higher education have shown that Māori-centred institutions, Wānanga, have been able to greatly increase the scope of Māori involvement in tertiary education and offer prospects of progression to higher degrees and research competencies that are distinctly Māori.

The increased social cohesion within higher education has also had an impact beyond the campus. While the results of indigenous inclusion in universities and other tertiary education centres have been felt at a number of levels, they have been especially obvious in the expansion of the Māori professional workforce. The number of Māori medical practitioners for example has increased from less than fifty before 1984 (0.5 percent of the total medical workforce), to more than 250 in 2008 (2.6 percent) while the number of dentists has increased from four to 60 over the same period of time. The emergence of a large cadre of Māori lawyers, including several judges (two of whom are High Court judges) and the establishment of a Society of Māori Accountants, as well as a Māori Psychologists Forum, a Māori Nurses Council, and a Māori Social Workers caucus, add further evidence of Māori success in higher education.

But a second major impact of Māori participation in higher education has been the increased interaction between Māori academics and professionals and their non-Māori counterparts. There has been a renewed sense of partnership built around two sets of traditions, two bodies of knowledge and two cultures. The interface between the two approaches has become a rich ground for the expansion of knowledge and enhanced understanding, without assumptions that one approach is necessarily more worthy than the other. As it is for universities, social cohesion within New Zealand communities is premised on wider goals than equity and unqualified inclusion in a homogenous society; there is now evidence that Māori participation in society as Māori is also valued. In this respect the foundations have been laid for a society where indigenous perspectives can be factored in to the heart of the nation. While the determinants of societal change are many, and include both state policies and global influences, universities have nonetheless played some part in nudging society towards a greater level of cohesion.

regard for the relative under-representation of Māori in universities, and especially in the sciences, it is clear that much remains to be done. Yet over the past two decades Māori inclusion has transformed higher education, not only by the greatly increased numbers of students completing postgraduate qualifications, including doctorates, but also by the expansion of knowledge constructed at the interface between western science and indigenous knowledge. The recognition of Wānanga as core elements of the tertiary education sector, the establishment of a national Māori centre of research excellence, Nga Pae o te Maramatanga, and the launch of a national inter-university academy, MANU-AO, to strengthen Māori scholarship, are additional signals that Māori participation in higher education has the potential to add new horizons to tertiary education in New Zealand. In the process, there will be significant gains for wider society and for New Zealand’s identity as a modern state within the Asia-Pacific region.

To read Professor Durie's paper see