Yes, we need spaces for Māori and Pasifika

Brendon Dunphy, a Pākehā in the School of Biological Sciences, reflects on the importance and inclusivity of Māori/Pasifika spaces at the University

Group of Maori and Pacifica students

A distinct pleasure of my job as a university lecturer is an annual, four-day marine biology field trip to Whangārei Heads with roughly 40 University of Auckland students.

Over the course of these four days, students of Asian, European, Indian, Māori, Pasifika, and South American (and more) descent work together in groups to undertake a number of small-scale ecological studies. The students work together, eat together, share the same accommodation, laugh, chat, and assist each other with data collection, statistical analysis, and report writing. They learn about each other’s cultures, how to work professionally with each other, and willingly lend a hand to help others get their work done. It’s inspiring to see.

So, it was curious to see the comments by Act’s tertiary education spokesperson Dr Parmjeet Parmar on a Te Ao with Moana show suggesting spaces for Māori and Pasifika (M/PI) at the University of Auckland exclude others and lock Māori and Pasifika students away from experiencing, and engaging with, a diverse multicultural education. As a fellow scientist, I question the evidence on which this is based.

I can only draw on my own experience of 19 years teaching at the university; the last seven of these as academic coordinator of a Māori and Pacific student learning community (which incidentally has a dedicated space for M/PI tauira – students) to counter her claims.

Our philosophy in the programme is non-M/PI students are welcome to attend, but we ask that they ‘participate and not dominate’ within our space. We have had Pākeha staff (of which I am one) successfully run and tutor our programme. Non-M/PI friends of tauira frequently come and use the space, filling it with laughter and humour, as they work together to achieve the best they can. They are spaces where lifelong friends, and future career connections, are made. We frequently offer our visitors some kai and/or advice and manaaki where resources allow. Many non-Māori teaching staff find interacting with our programme to be a singular highlight of the job.

Our M/PI students attend the same lectures, the same laboratory sessions, the same tutorials, and sit the same exams as all students. They are not as Parmar’s words would imply, cloistered away and segregated, not mixing with the general student body. So, to ease her mind there is no danger here, as she frequently suggested in her interview.

Can we write these comments off as evidence of a generation of ‘snowflake wusses’ who’ll blub over a stubbed toe?’ Unlikely, given some of the neighbourhoods and circumstances our tauira are raised in, and the grit and determination they show to succeed at university.

But picking up on another of her questions –why do we need the spaces at all? Indeed, why? In the words of the students themselves, who feel these are safe spaces where they can just “be”, because these are spaces where they don’t need to explain themselves and don’t feel culturally compromised. Year after year they tell me they are a refuge, that helps offset the remarks that imply they don’t belong here.

Can we write these comments off as evidence of a generation of ‘snowflake wusses’ who’ll blub over a stubbed toe?’ Unlikely, given some of the neighbourhoods and circumstances our tauira are raised in, and the grit and determination they show to attend and succeed at university.

Many tauira in our programme are resilient, talented, and frequently overperform, academically and as citizens. They readily seek whatever resources/expertise improves their performance (as they should). Moreover, they’ll give back to the institution (and future tauira) long after they have left.These spaces (and associated programmes) allow students to realise their academic talents, improve their performance and the overall experience for M/PI students.

In many instances it is only because of these spaces, and friends made within, that some tauira find the grit to finish their studies and take up productive careers that improve New Zealand society and contribute to future economic growth.

My personal wish is the opposite to which the MP is promoting. I would hope such spaces and programmes could be expanded and rolled out across the university for more student groups. We already have a bespoke programme developed by our own staff here in Biological Sciences and successfully running for the past 30 years to serve as a model. No doubt a pipe dream in these fiscally constrained times – but hope springs eternal.

So, apologies to Parmar, but reality and your reckons don’t match. These spaces are not exclusionary, but a vital response by an institution eager to improve the student experience and educational outcomes for treaty partners and key minority groups.

Associate Professor Brendon Dunphy, School of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science 

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not
necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland.

This article was first published on Newsroom, Māori and PI spaces at unis no place for wusses or MP’s reckons, 13 April, 2024 

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