Prospective Māori students question if uni is a safe space in wake of calls for review into racism at all universities

10:42 am on 23 September 2020

The fear and intimidation Waikato University professors have experienced when calling out racism has been putting prospective students off from going to university, the Māori Tertiary Student's Association has said.

Waikato University sign

File photo. Photo: CC-BY-SA-2.0 / NZTEU

Te Mana Ākonga, the Māori Tertiary Students' Association, are the latest group to send an open letter to the Minister of Education Chris Hipkins calling for a nationwide review into racism at all universities.

An open letter was also sent to Hipkins on 14 September calling for a national review to commence urgently, signed by 36 Māori professors across the country.

Te Mana Ākonga tumuaki takirua Mamaeroa Merito said it's been a difficult time for tauira (students).

"It has actually been quite a jarring experience for our tauira to see our rangatira really struggling and feeling the need to speak out on these issues, but not only that, also then feeling fear and intimidation when they have done so and that obviously impacts on our tauira negatively.

"In some cases that have been reported back to us, we have prospective students that are now reconsidering which universities they want to go to because of all the fear and intimidation that has come to light that our rangatira are experiencing."

She said a review would create a better system, one that met the Treaty of Waitangi and which would restore Māori faith in tertiary institutions that had been shaken.

"Their starting to question whether or not tertiary education is a safe space for them and that's one of our driving points for why we think there needs to be a nationwide review.

"It's already hard enough to be a Māori student in tertiary education, and that's reflected in our outcomes, but now the fact of the matter is that it's impacting potential Māori students and that's where we feel the need to call our Minister to intervene, to review so that we can create a better system and a better sector."

Merito said they've had an acknowledgement from Hipkin's office that their letter has been received, but no response from him.

Professor of Māori Studies at University of Auckland, Margaret Mutu, was one of the 36 professors who called for a review over a week ago.

She said they'd also only received an acknowledgement, and was disappointed at the slow response.

Ngāti Kahu chair Margaret Mutu

Margaret Mutu. Photo: RNZ / Leigh-Marama McLachlan

"This is a major issue, not only in the universities where it's really bad but also across the country, so it will benefit them to take it seriously."

"I think it's a matter that has to be addressed in this country and to hide behind whatever, including that it is election time, is just not good enough."

Mutu said universities were "burying their head in the sand", and until a review was undertaken, the institutions wouldn't know the true extent of racism.

"A review would point out exactly what racism looks like and how it behaves inside of a university, and it's only once you know what you're dealing with, that you can then address it."

The minister wasn't available for comment but said in a statement, he would be responding to both letters "shortly".

Hipkins said reports of systemic or structural racism were taken "very seriously" and the government was committed to strengthening Māori-Crown relationships.

He said the government would consider the findings of the Waikato University independent review into specific claims of structural racism at the university.

Meanwhile, a letter was sent to the University of Waikato calling for them tackle racism in their institution.

That was signed by over 6800 professors, students and graduates from New Zealand and across the globe, with 43 percent of the signatories from overseas.

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