Tertiary education enrolments surge for Māori and Pasifika students, partly driven by support offered during the Covid lockdowns, writes Ben Leonard

A boom in domestic student numbers has surprised many universities and polytechnics, with Māori and Pasifika students leading the charge.

Across those universities and polytechnics providing figures, Māori student enrolments are up by an average of 14.5 percent and Pasifika students up by 15.2 percent, compared to an overall 10.4 percent increase in rolls.

At the University of Auckland, Māori and Pasifika enrolments were both up 7 percent on last year, compared to an increase of just 4.6 percent overall. At the University of Canterbury Māori enrolments have grown by 21 percent and Pasifika enrolments by 17 percent. Meanwhile, the University of Waikato has Māori enrolments up by 15.6 percent and Pasifika up by 14.6 percent.

The polytechnics and training institutes have also seen a spike in Māori and Pasifika enrolments. Waikato Institute of Technology is reporting a 26 percent increase for Māori students and 28 percent for Pasifika students, compared to a 21 percent bump overall. At Otago Polytechnic, Pasifika enrolments have jumped 27 percent compared to and 18 percent increase overall.

A slowing economy and closed borders have seen an unprecedented boom in New Zealanders enrolling in study this year. The Government’s fees-free policies are also beginning to bear fruit in enrolment numbers, especially this year’s Targeted Training and Apprenticeship Fund.

So what is providing the further boost to Māori and Pasifika enrolments?

“It’s the support staff who are going above and beyond,” says Jaistone Finau, national president of Tauira Pasifika, the national association for Pasifika students.

Domestic enrolments in tertiary education are up across the board – but especially among Māori and Pasifika. Why is that? Click here to comment.

Finau says Māori and Pasifika support staff and volunteers consistently go beyond their normal roles and hours to support students, both on and off campus. This includes making sure students feel they have a community behind them in what can sometimes be alienating institutions.

“You have some advisors who see students as just their grades, but the thing I always notice about Pacific and Māori advisors, because they are brought up culturally, it’s quite a holistic support,” he says.

In particular, Finau believes the support given to Pasifika students during Covid-19 lockdowns has played a big part in this year’s enrolment boom.   

“The way that Pasifika teams helped to support their students during lockdown, that news gets around,” he says.

Pasifika students at the Tauira Pasifika national fono 2020. Photo: Tauira Pasifika

It’s a similar story for Māori students, according to Otago University student Kiritea Smith. Smith is a member of the Māori students association Te Roopu Māori, and believes enrolments are growing because Māori students feel more confident to take the leap into study knowing they will be supported. In particular, Smith says the first year can be an isolating time for Māori students and she credits Te Roopu Māori and the Māori centre Te Huka Mātauraka with making new arrivals feel welcome.

“Five minutes after walking through those doors they find people that are cousins, and they make these connections. It makes you feel more comfortable being so far away from home.”

Smith says it’s the whanaungatanga (kinship) provided by student associations and support staff that makes Māori students like herself want to stick around. She would like to see universities give more promotion to their student associations, which play a unique role in peer-to-peer support.

“The Māori centre provides all your academic stuff, but the people who work there, we look up to them as a nannie or a koro. Whereas the associations are just all students, so everyone has had similar experiences and you can relate to them,” she says.

At Otago, Māori student enrolments are up 8.4 percent compared to 7.9 percent growth overall. Deputy vice-chancellor Tony Ballantyne believes the university’s relationship with mana whenua has also played a part in attracting more Māori students.

“We really appreciate the manaakitanga extended to our students by the local rūnaka, the Ngāi Tahu community,” he says.

New programmes to prepare students have also been important for attracting Māori and Pasifika students, according to both Finau and Smith. Summer programmes such as AUT’s UniPrep and the University of Auckland’s UniBound give students a short, fees-free introduction to university life and help to build the sense of community many students are looking for.

“Those programmes are important for Pacific students to see that there is a place for them at university, which can otherwise be a very western institution,” says Finau.

“Will these students still be here in a year’s time?”
– Jaistone Finau, Tauira Pasifika.

However, the growth in Māori and Pasifika enrolments comes at a time when many tertiary institutions are being forced to make staff cuts due to the loss of international student revenue. Around 300 staff from the University of Auckland recently accepted voluntary leaving packages, with similar schemes rolling out at Victoria, AUT, Massey and Lincoln. Given the importance of support staff for attracting and retaining Māori and Pasifika students, Finau wants to see both the Government and universities step up.

“We need more Pasifika support staff. It’s nice to say you have enrolments but if you don’t have support then you might end up with dropout rates going up,” he says.

“While the enrolment numbers look good now, will these students still be here in a year’s time?”

One particularly overlooked group are Pasifika students studying at polytechs and other tertiary training institutions such as Wintec. The majority of Pasifika students in tertiary training are studying at polytechs, and Finau says they often receive less support than their peers at the better funded universities.

“Some of these people are parents looking to upskill in their place of work, people who come from working backgrounds who have families, who just want to get that qualification so they can upskill and live a meaningful life.”

Ben Leonard writes on Treaty issues and the environment.

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