Some universities are reluctant to set deadlines for ensuring Māori and Pacific students are as successful as other groups of students.
The deadlines are a new requirement from the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC).
It has been trying for more than a decade to stop Māori and Pacific students failing courses and dropping out at much higher rates than other students.
Last year universities recorded an overall course pass rate of 88 percent for Pākehā students, but for Māori students it was 80 percent and for Pacific students 69. At Te Pūkenga's polytechnics, the rates were 81 percent for Pākehā, Māori 72 percent and Pacific 70 percent.
Despite their failure to meet previous Tertiary Education Commission deadlines, several universities and all of Te Pūkenga's polytechnics had set targets for closing the gap by 2030 or 2031.
Te Mana Ākonga, the Māori students' association, tumuaki Rosa Hibbert-Schooner told RNZ most universities would have to make big changes if they were going to be successful.
"I'm not super-optimistic. I think we're starting to see some really good changes and some really good efforts to work collaboratively with Māori students on a national level but I can't say the same for our local students. Every time they come to our hui and come to our different wananga they're still facing the exact same challenges," she said.
Hibbert-Schooner said universities needed to listen to Māori students and actively involve them in planning and governance.
They should also support initiatives run by Māori student associations, she said.
"We've got so many amazing Māori students' associations doing things that the institute isn't for Māori students currently. My biggest concern is if they try to reach these targets without even recognising the mahi that their own Māori students are doing to reach those targets already," she said.
Examples included kapa haka groups that attracted and support Māori students, but received no university funding.
Hibbert-Schooner said institutions must be held to account for reaching the targets.
University of Auckland researcher Dr Sereana Naepi said the targets were exciting but she warned the Tertiary Education Commission would need to enforce them and provide money to help universities' achieve them.
"The problem becomes how do you enforce that with academics who perhaps don't think it's their responsibility to teach in ways that provide equitable outcomes. We have people who don't reflect actively on their teaching practices and so you have to find ways to incentivise academics," she said.
"Some of those dates are pretty far out. What does it mean to tell a population that you've got to wait six, seven years for an institution to meet parity. That for me is concerning when we know that this is an urgent issue and it's been an urgent issue for decades."
AUT, Waikato University not keen on deadline requirement
AUT and Waikato University were not required to set deadlines last year for achieving parity and they indicated they were not keen on setting them this year.
AUT vice-chancellor Professor Damon Salesa told RNZ it was being asked to solve disparities created by society at large, but received no extra funding to help it do that.
"Many things that show up as disparities in education have origins outside of education. They come from disadvantages that whānau have in their homes and their working lives, intergenerational poverty, the effects of a highly-variable compulsory sector in education, the cost of living," he said.
Salesa said AUT enrolled more students from disadvantaged backgrounds than other universities and though it set ambitious annual targets for reducing disparities it was wary of setting a deadline for eliminating them altogether.
"What we've seen is a history within education of setting ambitious long-distance targets and that doesn't recognise the cohort nature of education. You set a target now for a group of students you haven't even met yet and you can't operate on the presumption that the students you're going to receive in six years come to you better prepared than the previous cohort did," he said.
Waikato University said it too was committed to parity but a target would be arbitrary because it did not want to constrain the students who enrolled with it and there were no guarantees about the funding it would have each year for equity initiatives.
"The university is fully committed to achieving parity but with approximately a third of our student body being Māori and Pacific, and with so many unknowns, we do not currently feel in a position to set a realistic target for achieving parity," it said.
However, the university said it was trying to close the gaps and it was confident a new approach to the problem would help.
"Over the next few years it is expected that it will bring about radical improvements in student participation, pass rates, the graduation rate, and help close the parity gaps for Māori and Pacific learners, and learners with disabilities."
A key part of the commission's approach was a requirement for "learner success plans" that explained how each institution would achieve parity.
Canterbury University deputy vice-chancellor (academic) Professor Catherine Moran said its plan was coordinated across all levels of the university and things were already starting to change.
"We've put some things in place that are benefiting all students which is fantastic but what's interesting and making us quite happy is we're seeing a more accelerated progression, a greater gap closure for our Māori and Pacific students," she said.
Moran said a key difference from previous initiatives was a greater focus on how universities could reduce barriers to student success that they might not even be aware they had created.
She said she was optimistic Canterbury could close gaps in first-year retention and course and qualification rates by 2030.
"What I see is real ownership across our faculties, across the academics. People want the students to succeed. They don't want to be part of the problem, they don't want to be creating barriers that are going to impact the students," she said.
TEC to work with institutions which had not yet set target dates
The Tertiary Education Commission said it was requiring institutions to set a date for achieving parity in learner success plans developed this year.
It said it would work with institutions that had not yet set targets to discuss their concerns and get to a point where setting a target date was possible.
"The TEC expects to see all TEOs make a commitment to a target date for achieving parity of education outcomes, but we appreciate that some organisations may need additional time and support to do so. In discussions with TEIs that have not set targets, they identified a range of reasons for not including a specified date. For example, they may not yet have data available to enable them to understand the scale of the problem and therefore to be able to make a reasonable "guess" as to when they might be able to fix the issues," the commission said.
It said it could withhold funding and set conditions if it was not happy with institutions' performance against agreed milestones in their plans.
"We have worked closely with each tertiary education institution (TEI) to agree milestones for 2023. These are primarily activity-based milestones and based on focus areas the TEIs identified in their LSP [Learner Success Plan]. We are now starting conversations to agree milestones for 2024 and, as understanding and capability builds across the sector, we expect to be able to agree more long-term output and outcome milestones," it said.
The government recently announced a $10-million fund to help tertiary institutions improve their pass rates.