Multiculturalism in Student Structures

Posted on August 24, 2011


New Zealand I discovered fairly quickly after entering her airspace is a particularly beautiful country. I have had the pleasure to visit many countries throughout the world, but few have the variation and extremes of New Zealand, from temperate rainforests to alpine mountain ranges.

Arriving in Christchurch, the anticipation for the Rugby World Cup is high and that is evident in the publicity and renovations that have been made throughout the airports. On the short drive from the airport through Christchurch, you get very little sense of the natural disaster that struck here and claimed 181 lives. However the effects of the Earthquake are much more apparent in certain areas than others. Some streets are filled with gaps where once stood buildings that held people’s businesses and homes. The centre of the city resembles a ghost town.

As I marched through the freak snow, I set out to the first of many meetings that I will be having in New Zealand, looking into best practice in New Zealand Tertiary Education.

I visited the University of Canterbury and where I met Monica Lei, the President of the University of Canterbury Māori Students Association. There are two Student Associations at UC, the University of Canterbury Students Association (UCSA) and the University of Canterbury Māori Students Association (MSA). In 2007 only 5% of students at UC were Māori students[1]. They are represented by the management executive of the Maori Students’ Association which also provides services to students on behalf of the University as a sub contractor. They receive an annual grant equivalent to a variable percentage of the student services levy from Māori students. This is then used to fund the Whare (Māori Student Centre and Meeting House), and services specifically for Māori including tutors and mentors for Māori free of charge as well as social and cultural events.

Māori are becoming better represented at university in New Zealand but are still in the minority making up 10.75%[2] of the total university population whilst making up 15.05% national population[3]. Māori students are also far more likely to fail part of their degree with a pass rate of 73% whilst their white European counterparts have a pass rate of 84%[4].

The picture is not as bleak as one might think for Māori. More Māori are entering the professions than ever before, and there is a marked improvement in pass rates compared with previous years. The question is how has this improvement been achieved?

There are likely to be many sociological reasons for this but some of the improvement can certainly be attributed to support systems offered to Māori students via their associations.  At UC Māori students have access to a mentor and tutor free of charge to help them in their studies. This support proves invaluable to many and may be the cause of the recently improving pass rates.

It is also possible that the attitude of the iwi (tribes) has helped with improving participation rates amongst Māori. Many of the iwi take the view that opportunities in education are the best way of rebalancing the economic gap between the Māori and their fellow Kiwis. The rise of Māori Studies as an academic subject may also have had an impact. It is clear however that making Tertiary Education meet and meld with Māori culture has had a far greater impact than trying to change that culture ever could. Māori student associations are a fantastic example of how student representation can have an amazing impact on students through being relevant and adapting to the needs of their members. The way the organisation embraces Māori culture rather than enforcing white European structures upon the students makes them accessible and positive for the students they represent.

We could do well to learn the lesson that one culture is not always the way forward in the UK. Multiculturalism goes further than giving everyone a vote…

[1] University of Canterbury, Data Handbook 2007, Table 10

[2] Statistics New Zealand, ‘Summary of Learners in Tertiary Education 2009’,  LNR.1

[3] Statistics New Zealand, ‘National Population Estimates June 2010’ and ‘Maori Population Estimates 2010’

[4] Statistics New Zealand, ‘Summary of Learners in Tertiary Education 2009’, LNR.4