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As universities restructure, Māori and Pacific researchers are being put at risk

Emerging Māori and Pacific academics are already severely underrepresented at universities. Now they’re in jeopardy of being the first ones to go.

As the impacts of Covid-19 bite, universities are looking for ways to cut budgets. There’s a serious danger that in doing so, they erase a generation of Māori and Pacific researchers. The pandemic is exacerbating and exposing pre-existing societal inequalities, including those that exist in our higher education systems both nationally and internationally. We know already that Māori and Pacific academics are under-represented across universities. We also know that where we do exist, it’s more often than not in precarious positions which are very often the easiest to discontinue.

Universities are facing huge decreases in income domestically and internationally. Vice-chancellors have started going public about their restructures, business continuation plans and pay cuts. Internal communications very often come shrouded in secrecy with veiled threats about not speaking to people outside the institution.

Among the first targets tend to be temporary contracts, which are either halted or not renewed. The reality, however, is that these positions are often a kind of apprenticeship for early career academics. Our doctorates offer evidence that we have certain skills, but we often develop our teaching skills in professional teaching fellowships and our research in post-doctoral positions to become competitive in a global job market.

When universities discontinue these positions, they jeopardise the ability of early career researchers in New Zealand to find jobs in research and development industries or within universities. Early career researchers have already issued a public call that highlights that in making these cuts, universities threaten the future of New Zealand’s research space.

As Māori and Pacific early career researchers, we’re already severely underrepresented in these “pipeline” positions. We believe now that the pipeline is fundamentally pakaru. In 2017, there were only 75 Māori and Pasifika post-docs employed in New Zealand’s universities, compared with 575 Pākehā post-doctorates. Universities electing to save money by discontinuing these critical positions will break an essential and already fragile link in the Māori and Pacific academic development chain. Research we’re working on at the moment also shows that Māori and Pasifika are more likely to be in precarious contracts than Pākehā.

There is, however, a small ray of hope. The state services pay restraint letter specifically outlines that “any discretionary provisions should be operated to target low paid and frontline roles, and continue to address gender and ethnic pay inequities”. Recent research has shown a gender pay gap in universities and our forthcoming work shows that this disparity is greater still for Māori and Pacific women. Pair this with Māori and Pacific under-representation and the task becomes very clear: universities need to centre equity before they begin these restructures and business continuity plans. Beginning with equity doesn’t just benefit equity groups: studies have shown that increased diversity in research leads to an increase in novelty, which will benefit all New Zealanders.

Covid-19 has been seen as an opportunity by the world’s community of universities to address and reimagine the existing inequities in the system. We challenge our own universities to be international leaders in this space. What would a post-Covid-19 university look like if we began with equity and not with a blunt pursuit of dollars?



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