CHE12 Maori university in New Zealand tries to cope with rapid growth (fwd)
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sun Aug 8 15:37:27 UTC 2004
>>From the Chronicle of Higher Education issue dated July 25, 2003
A Victim of Success?
A Maori university in New Zealand tries to cope with rapid growth
By DAVID COHEN
Te Awamutu, New Zealand
When some Maori educators here went on the prowl recently for software to
help students better understand their country's native language, they
received a pleasing response from an American company.
The local branch of the Microsoft Corporation promptly developed a
word-processing enhancement that allows people to use a single keystroke
to insert a macron, a character needed over vowels to indicate the correct
pronunciation of some Maori words.
It was a small step forward perhaps, but instruction in the indigenous
language is an important aspect of a burgeoning market here for
postsecondary education that explores the cultural landscape of New
Zealand's original inhabitants, the Maoris. The country's curriculums
include the group's native tongue, its time-steeped aesthetics, its
commerce, and its sciences, areas in which some Maori educators claim to
have a distinctive take.
Although enthusiasm for learning the native language pervades the
country's eight public universities and other such institutions, interest
is strongest at the 10-campus Te Wananga o Aotearoa, New Zealand's only
explicitly Maori institution of higher learning. The college, which is
accredited by the New Zealand Quality Authority, a government agency, is
unusual by many international benchmarks and has its headquarters here in
this leafy little North Island township.
"We've definitely been on a roll, no question," boasts Rongo H. Wetere,
the institution's tumuaki, or chief executive. He notes that this year's
72-percent growth in enrollment, to 35,000 full-time students, clinched
Aotearoa's status as the country's largest postsecondary institution, an
upward trend that until now has been celebrated by successive governments.
But its growth has also put it squarely in the cross hairs of the nation's
politicians and a number of more-mainstream educators, who wonder about
the need for a growing government subsidy, and who worry about a "crisis
in quality," as one says, charging that the college's educational
standards have failed to keep pace with its numbers.
Mr. Wetere says the institution he founded has long been misunderstood or
misrepresented -- an experience, he says, not unlike that of the native
population it primarily exists to serve.
The Maori were the earliest inhabitants of the three major islands that
became the modern New Zealand state, in 1840, some six centuries after
they began migrating here from Hawaii. Today, the group accounts for
around 14 percent of the overall population of four million, with the
majority of other people tracing their ancestry back to the British
settlers who first stepped ashore here in the late 1700s. A far smaller
number of New Zealanders are of Asian or other Pacific Island stock.
At Te Wananga o Aotearoa, as many as one-fifth of the students are
enrolled in one of the college's popular Maori-language courses. Thousands
more are studying toward a variety of certificates, diplomas, or
undergraduate degrees in other areas with an indigenous ring -- in
woodcarving programs, for example, the physical evidence of which
colorfully festoons this campus, or in nautical studies, in which students
learn about the early Polynesians' initial voyages throughout the Pacific.
Later this year, Aotearoa plans to introduce its first master's degree, in
business, and more graduate degrees are planned for 2004.
In the past academic year alone at Aotearoa, nearly 10,000 newcomers have
signed on, bringing total enrollment, including part-time students, to
60,000. Another 10,000 students are expected for the 2004-5 year. About
two-thirds of the students identify themselves as Maori, and a significant
portion say they are "second-chance learners," younger New Zealanders
whose experience in mainstream schools has not gone too smoothly.
A Rapid Ascent
In a country where enrollment increases in postsecondary education
typically fall in the 2-to-3-percent range, such a surge cannot help but
be noticed. The feat is all the more notable because Aotearoa opened its
tribal doors for business less than 20 years ago, with just one instructor
and six students, and became a mainstream fixture only in the early 1990s.
In a relatively brief period, "we've become world leaders when it comes to
indigenous higher education, or at least that's what I'm told when I
travel abroad," says Mr. Wetere, pointing out a corner of his
well-appointed office where framed letters of praise from other educators
hang alongside a small number of honorary degrees recognizing his work in
establishing Aotearoa. One of his doctorates is from Sinte Gleska
University, in Rosebud, S.D., a tribal college that serves the Sioux
The American degree was presented to Mr. Wetere last year, when he
traveled to the Dakotas to help set up the World Higher Education
Consortium. The group, which claims indigenous academic representatives in
Australia, Canada, Cuba, Mexico, the Philippines, South Korea, and the
United States, expects to hold its first university-based conference this
summer, to be held at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. Among the subjects
slated for discussion is whether the New Zealand institution could help
educators seeking to work with disadvantaged ethnic groups in the United
If only New Zealand officials were as enthusiastic as the international
well-wishers, Mr. Wetere sighs. The left-leaning Labor Party government
here has been pleased to encourage the revitalization of the Maori
language, and for many years it has championed Aotearoa's growth. It has
even allowed the college to translate its name, for marketing and official
purposes, as "the University of New Zealand." But the government has now
signaled that it will not support endless growth in the student body.
Starting next year, Aotearoa will need to cut its enrollment, perhaps by
as many as 10,000 students, if a tentative decision recently made public
by the government remains in force. Announcing the policy change, the
country's higher-education minister, Steve Maharey, said that while
Aotearoa's growth had met his government's goal of increasing
postsecondary opportunities for young Maoris, the college's expansion had
reached an outer limit.
"It's about having a balanced portfolio in terms of education and not
having explosive growth in one area or another," says Mr. Maharey,
insisting that he has no concerns about Aotearoa's curriculum.
But critics have been unenthusiastic about the academic offerings, asking
how courses in traditional areas such as woodcarving and boat-building can
possibly equip young Maoris to make a life for themselves in a world
increasingly geared toward technology. Last year, the country's
association of Maori students publicly dismissed the institution's
long-term benefits for students as virtually negligible.
"I see no talk of higher jobs at the kananga," Geoff Karena, the
association's leader, said in a recent interview. "Where are the
scientists and inventors?"
Some educators, including a high-profile Maori representative in the Labor
Party, have gone further still. They insist not only that Aotearoa has
gotten too big for its ethnic boots but that its growth appears to be
outstripping its ability to deliver a first-rate higher education, even in
the areas in which it already specializes.
A Threatening Institution?
"I have problems with Aotearoa in terms of its quality and outcomes," says
John Tamihere, a Labor Party minister and one of the country's most
visible Maori politicians. While the institution's vocational-certificate
programs are "simply superb," he says, "the big questions of relevance and
quality really start to kick in" in the degree programs.
The Maori institution, Mr. Tamihere says firmly, has not yet shown itself
ready or able to build on "the ebullience it has created up until this
point to becoming the gob-smackingly great university some might see it as
Some of Aotearoa's academics and its chief executive deny, and even
denounce, that charge. They have warned that any serious changes now could
lead to the loss of job opportunities for economically disadvantaged
Maoris. That outcome might force some to turn to what one academic
politely describes as "less fortunate" social activities, taken to mean
crime. In the worst-case scenario, it could spell the end to what is, they
say, a uniquely New Zealand institution: not quite a full-fledged
university, perhaps, but not a regular community college or
run-of-the-mill polytechnic, either.
"People are very threatened by us -- they are threatened by our
philosophy, our character, and, especially, our numbers," says Ngapare
Hopa, a onetime professor of Maori studies at the country's University of
Auckland and now the director of the Aotearoa Business School, which is
housed in a commercial building in the nearby city of Hamilton.
Ms. Hopa's school offers a number of courses in management, from
elementary small-business skills through graduate degrees. It has just
interviewed 90 applicants for its program offering a bachelor's degree in
business studies. A quality educational experience? "Well," she replies
evenly, "what we would say is that we're offering a different educational
experience, one that's primarily aimed at building up the fortunes of our
Dennis Appo, an aboriginal Australian who recently joined the business
school as an associate professor, agrees. "Some universities work in
theory but not in practice," he says. "I've already come to think that
even if we don't work in theory, at least as far as some people might be
concerned, we definitely work in practice."
For now, Aotearoa may be hoping to use the coming year to consolidate its
gains, as well as to encourage more of its faculty members to pursue
doctoral degrees, Mr. Wetere says, since only a handful have doctorates
now. The optimistic chief executive has also just ordered the
institution's first shipment of mortarboards and academic gowns for its
next round of convocation ceremonies. This could be the time, he reflects,
for the Maori University of New Zealand to acquire "a few more mainstream
Volume 49, Issue 46, Page A34
Copyright 2003 by The Chronicle of Higher Education
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