No matter how intense or heated the discussion may be, NZ universities need to address the difference between ideology and science, writes Elizabeth Rata

Opinion: New Zealand’s universities are at a defining crossroads. Do we remain a universitas, a community of scholars developing knowledge according to the universal principles and methods of science or do we continue down the path of a racialised ideology?

The science-ideology battle is nothing new to universities. Dialectical materialism was the ruling ideology in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Christianity was the ideology in the pre-Darwinian centuries of English universities. In post-1980s’ New Zealand it is the racial ideology of two political categories of people defined by their ancestry.

Unfounded accusations of racism or other silencing strategies muzzle discussion about what is happening in our universities and schools. There are many layers needing discussion – the difference between science and culture, between cultural safety and intellectual risk-taking, between universalism and parochialism. However intense and heated the discussion may be it must take place. Too much is at stake to pretend that all is well.

A useful contribution is to consider the role of the 2020 Education and Training Act in the shift from science to ideology. The basic contradiction between universal science and the parochialism of the treaty ideology is found in that legislation.

It has several clauses supporting science. They include the academic freedom clause which gives academic staff and students, freedom “within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas, and to state controversial or unpopular opinions”. Another clause recognises that the university’s “principal aim is to develop intellectual independence”. These aims are to be achieved by “people who are active in advancing knowledge, who meet international standards of research and teaching, who are a repository of knowledge and expertise and who accept a role as critic and conscience of society”.

The main Treaty principles clause requires the university’s council “to acknowledge the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi”. ‘Acknowledge’ can be weak or strong. Since the term first appeared in the 1990 Education Act it has morphed into the strongest interpretation as obligation and commitment. It is now very difficult for academics to question the ideological intensity which has swept through the university as ‘obligation’ is embedded. Prayers in the secular university go unchallenged. Treaty requirements in teaching courses are fulfilled. Funding applications without mātauranga Māori adherence are declined. Language is self-monitored for ideological lapses.

The legislation also holds a clue to the seemingly widespread support from academics for the Treaty ideology. Section 281 encourages the greatest possible student participation by under-represented groups. The assumption is made that adherence to treaty principles will provide this encouragement. That is unlikely. The educational underachievement of a section of the Māori population happens well before students reach tertiary education.

University students from all racial and cultural groups tend to come from knowledge-rich schools which provide a solid foundation for university study. These are often the children of the professional class who have benefited from such knowledge in their own lives and insist that schools provide it for their children.

It is access to the abstract quality of academic knowledge and language, its very remoteness from everyday experience, and its formality – science in other words – that is necessary for success. Tragically this knowledge is miscast as ‘euro-centric’. The aim of the decolonisation and re-indigenisation of New Zealand education is to replace this knowledge with the cultural knowledge of experience.

But science is not euro-centric or western. It is universal. This is recognised in the International Science Council’s definition of science as “rationally explicable, tested against reality, logic, and the scrutiny of peers this is a special form of knowledge”. It includes the arts, humanities and social sciences as human endeavours which may, along with the physical and natural sciences, use such a formalised approach. The very children who need this knowledge the most, now receive less.

The science-ideology discussion matters for many reasons – the university’s future, the country’s reputation for science and education, and the quality of education in primary and secondary schools. But at its heart it is about democracy. Science can only thrive when democracy thrives.

* Elizabeth Rata was one of seven professors from the University of Auckland who wrote a controversial open letter to The Listener magazine in July 2021 which raised concerns about an NCEA working group’s proposal to give mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) parity with other forms of Western knowledge.

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