Student study exposes turbulent waters for Māori, Pasifika researchers

By James Perry

New research shows Māori and Pasifika postgraduate students and academics believe “tokenistic” attitudes still persist in the country's universities.

Seen but Unheard surveyed the experience of Māori and Pasifika postgraduate students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) programmes. It found the severely underrepresented Māori and Pasifika students were used in ‘superficial’ and ‘unethical’ ways.

Māori and Pasifika academics make up less than 5% and 1.7 of the STEM field. The study found that often made the students feel isolated and vulnerable. One respondent recalled being asked by a senior staff member to provide some "clarity around Māori words".

“Given my basic understanding of te reo, I wasn't quite sure why I was called up until I realised that I was the only Māori on the floor with my PI [Principal Investigator] overseas.”

Others suggested they felt culturally unsafe in the institutions, and couldn’t be their true selves.

Widespread attitudes

One of the authors of the study, published in the latest Te Aparangi Royal Society Journal, Dr Tara McAllister, says the findings weren’t surprising but was still shocked by how widespread the attitudes were.

“Some of the things that mirrored my own experiences and kind of stuck out for me was how our whakapapa is used to tick boxes when it comes to funding, how we are instantly deemed experts on all things Māori, the racism we face when we are just trying to get through our degrees and the cultural incompetence of some of our kaiako.”

Those experiences however aren’t exclusive to the STEM field. A senior Lecturer at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University’s Te Kawa a Maui, Dr. Awanui Te Huia, has experienced firsthand the apparent tokenism toward using Māori academics for funding applications.

Earlier this week she received an email from a non-Māori researcher "wanting to put a Māori on their indigenous research collaboration application" with an added request for a response by the next day, with the incentive of extra funding for her department.

“Ehara i te mea ko mātou he mea whakarākei noa. Me tae mai te tangata i mua i te timatanga o tērā kaupapa, kia wānanga tahi ai he aha ngā painga mō te iwi. Ka mutu, mēnā kei te pātaitia ngā pātai ki ō mātou whānau, ki ō tātou hapori me whakaaronui tātou ki ngā painga.
(We aren’t here to just help make things look attractive. They need to come and talk to us before they begin their application, so we can discuss together what the benefits will be for our people, and also if they’re going to be talking to our people and our communities then they need to think about the benefits.)

Catalyst for change

“Kaua e haere poka noa nei i runga i te pōhēhē, i tō whakaaro ‘kei ahau te pūtea, kei ahau ngā pūkenga, ka tāea e au aua mahi te kawe.
(Don’t just go into those spaces with the idea that you have the funding and the expertise and therefore can do the work easily.)

“I te nuinga o ngā wā, mēnā he tāpiritanga noaiho te Māori ki runga i aua kaupapa rā, kāore e kaha poipoi ana te whakaaro Māori ki roto i aua kaupapa rā."
(A lot of the time, if Māori are an afterthought in the application process it shows that there hasn’t been much thought about how Māori will fit into the research.)

McAllister says she and her fellow authors of the study hope the findings will be the catalyst for changes in the way universities operate.

“I went through my eight years of studying science at two NZ universities and was never taught by a Māori lecturer or taught about mātauranga. We are hoping that universities will read this paper as a koha and as a wero for them to start thinking about how they can change the science learning environment.”