The responsibility of Pasifika students shouldn’t fall on the schooling sector alone – their success is everyone’s responsibility, writes Dr Cherie Chu 

Last week, Universities New Zealand Chairman Professor Stuart McCutcheon used the term “disadvantage” in association with Pasifika learners.

In a report about disparities between Māori and Pasifika and other New Zealand learners, McCutcheon told RNZ: “A lot of the disadvantage that Māori and Pasifika students experience is in the compulsory sector, and I don’t say that as a criticism of compulsory education, it’s just a reality and until we deal with that we are not going to see the pipeline of Māori and Pacific students prepared for university education in the numbers that we would wish to see.”

As an educator for Pasifika students and communities, I avoid using the word “disadvantage”. My reason is these labels position Pasifika in a negative light. In tertiary education, we have worked hard to move past this negative theorising. Focusing on the problems without addressing the underlying causes gets us nowhere.

Pasifika researchers and educators are more focused on strengths-based research led by Pasifika peoples for the benefit of Pasifika peoples. That’s because we are more interested in finding out what works well for Pasifika learners, and learning from successful students in tertiary education and understanding what has led to their success.

There are many fine examples of learners who refuse to see themselves as disadvantaged by the education system. Sure, many have had some pretty challenging experiences at school, but with hard work and grit they have pushed through.

The line “closing the gaps” has been used since 2000 to describe the big divide between Māori and Pasifika learners’ achievement rates and everyone else. According to the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC), between 2006 and 2015 Pasifika participation increased from 10 percent to 13 percent and course completion rates from 55 percent to 74 percent. Such figures indicate a positive step forward but to ensure further parity and success for Pasifika peoples we need more gains.

In my experience, Pasifika educators see the pressure from the TEC to organisations as a necessity. Pasifika staff across New Zealand have been working above and beyond their job description to promote Pasifika student success. It is a hard journey and we know we need more commitment from our organisations. 

Commitment for the development of a Pasifika academic workforce is crucial. Pasifika academic staff are only 1.7 percent of the academic workforce in New Zealand. Pasifika student success depends on having a presence of Pasifika academics who have influential roles in creating successful learning environments.

Tertiary organisations must be accountable for Pasifika learners in order for achievement rates to be higher. If tertiary organisations are actively recruiting students in schools throughout the country, and particularly in schools with high numbers of Pasifika students, then tertiary organisations have to ensure Pasifika learners not only participate but also complete their qualifications within ideal timeframes without outrageous levels of student loan debt. 

McCutcheon is passing the responsibility of Pasifika learners back to the schooling sector. While there are some issues around schooling for Pasifika, tertiary organisations still need to take more responsibility.  

Reports from Ako Aoteraoa, the National Centre for Tertiary Teaching Excellence, have strongly recommended tertiary organisations create workable, evidence-based strategies, policies and resources that prioritise Pasifika learners. This means recognising the responsibility for supporting Pasifika students does not just rest with the small group of Pasifika staff in each organisation. And it means thinking seriously about increasing the numbers of Pasifika scholars in academia. Students need to see Pasifika academics as being valued by their organisations.

Tertiary organisations have made many advances in this area, but success for Pasifika learners has been a slow work in progress and we need to build on the initiatives already taking place.

The days of passing the buck should be over. The success of Pasifika students is everyone’s responsibility. All of us in tertiary organisations need to acknowledge the wealth of experience, learning and passion Pasifika students bring to education and nurture this. It’s not about pipelines and shifting accountability but about people and positive action.

It is sad it may take the TEC withholding funding for practice and thinking to shift further, but change has to come. It’s a matter of justice.

Dr Cherie Chu is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at Victoria University of Wellington.

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