Otago’s Māori students are raising their voices

As the University of Otago Māori student body grows, so too do their aspirations for a space to call their own.

In March, the University of Otago’s Vice Chancellor Harlene Hayne announced a 10% increase in Māori students, and over a decade of uninterrupted year-on-year growth in both Māori and Pacific enrolments. The university says its ultimate goal is population parity.

“At this rate it is likely that Māori enrolments will exceed 2,000 students at Otago for the first time this year, and we will have close to 1,000 Pacific students here as well.”

But for an area with a Māori population of only around 8%, compared to the country’s 15%, Dunedin doesn’t seem a likely destination for young Māori and Pacific people venturing away from home for the first time. Te Roopū Māori (the Māori students’ association) tumuaki Tiana Mihaere (Kai Tahu, Ngati Kahungunu ki Wairoa, Ngāti Maniapoto, Rangitāne), a health sciences student from nearby Oamaru, says Dunedin can be a “culture shock” for North Island students.

“Compared to a lot of areas up North, there’s a definite demographic difference. For some students, they’re walking into a completely different country almost.”

She believes the number of scholarships offered to Māori and Pacific students is what lures them down, and the whanaungatanga is what keeps them there. And under Labour’s fees-free policy, where all New Zealand students who finished school in 2017 qualify for a year of free tertiary education or industry training, this should make university even more accessible.

“When they first started giving out the Māori and Pacific entrance scholarships they gave out 50. Last year they gave out 268,” she says from her office on campus. “The affordability, especially with fees-free, has made it much easier for our students to come to university, to make it a reality for Māori coming from low-socioeconomic backgrounds to see university as an option.”

Te Roopū Māori tumuaki Tiana Mihaere at the University of Otago’s 2018 Anzac Day commemorations. Image: Te Roopū Māori

Students that identify as Māori have automatic membership in Te Roopū Māori. In 2018 they netted a record 600 new members. The group organises social activities like paintball, wine and cheese evenings and guest speakers. In April, respected Māori lawyer and justice advocate Moana Jackson came to talk about his 1988 report on Māori and the criminal justice system. They offer beginner, intermediate and advanced te reo Māōri classes, as well as kapa haka.

“We have our whare on campus which is a safe space for Māori students to come and engage and to make connections with each other. We offer a range of inter-roopū challenges. We have nine divisional Māori student associations who affiliate to Te Roopū Māori – such as the Māori med students’ association Te Oranga ki Otākou, or PEMA, the Māori physical education students’ association – and we supply some funding to those roopū. They do quiz nights against each other and have an inter-shield competition. We’ve been working on a Te Whare Tapa Whā model, so focusing on Taha Whānau (family health), Taha Wairua (spiritual health), Taha Tinana (physical health) and Taha Hinengaro (mental health)… that’s how our shield challenges have been running since last year.”

University of Otago’s 2018 first year tauira at Puketeraki marae. Image: Te Roopū Māori

While the students are doing their best to support one another, support from the university comes from a number of channels. “The divisional roopū get support from their respective faculties. Māori Centre is big for academic support, especially in that first year. There are a lot of professional programmes that are first year entry, so there’s a lot of pressure on first year health and law [students]. The Office of Māori Development is very supportive of Te Roopū Māori. We seek guidance from them in regards to certain kaupapa we want to run.”

The group have two big projects on the horizon. The executive is elected annually so with the help of Office of Māori Development kaiwhakahaere Tuari Potiki, Mihaere is using her short tenure to make a big impact.

“Next year we’re hosting Te Hui Ngā Tauira, the annual Māori student conference. That’s around 300 Māori students from around the country. That’s a big job, and we’re just working on having that as an official event for the 150th anniversary celebration.”

The second is a challenge that will take time, patience and pressure – the establishment of an on-campus marae. “There are spaces for Māori students and faculty within the university obviously, but no marae or whare nui. We’re asking for approval from local rūnaka to establish a marae on campus, because there isn’t one. None of the South Island universities have one.”

Mihaere says marae were traditionally less relevant to South Island Māori because they moved around a lot, but many students, especially those from the North Island, would feel more comfortable having one there.

“This conversation has been happening for the last two decades. It’s something Te Rito, my executive, has inherited and something that hasn’t really been brought to the front as a priority. We had other things to work on as a roopū but it’s got to the point where we’re standing on our own two feet now and we’re saying: this is a space that we need to develop for Māori students.”

She hopes that the OUSA, the main students’ association whom she calls a “Treaty partner”, will help them achieve their goal. “In two week’s time there’s going to be a referendum on campus run through OUSA and the question submitted on behalf of Te Roopū Māori is: ‘Should OUSA support the establishment of an on-campus marae?’”

The referendum will ask the students 26 key questions on issues as diverse as if they should be using genderneutral terms in the university’s constitution, bullying, the inclusion of a Pacific representative on the executive, and composting on campus.

“The referendum is open to all students on campus. Hopefully the outcome of that is to provide a directive for the university students’ association to stand with us and ask the university to approach local rūnaka on our behalf, because the university then needs to work alongside them to make it a possibility for us.”

The referendum closes this month, and will hopefully see Te Roopū Māori armed with the support they need to break ground on a new era for Otago’s Māori students.


This content is brought to you by the University of Otago – a vibrant contributor to Māori development and the realisation of Māori aspirations, through our Māori Strategic Framework and world-class researchers and teachers.


This content is brought to you by the University of Otago – a vibrant contributor to Māori development and the realisation of Māori aspirations, through our Māori Strategic Framework and world-class researchers and teachers.

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