New research shows Māori and Pacific postgraduate students often feel their inclusion at Aotearoa’s universities is “tokenistic”.

Some Māori and Pacific postgraduates students say they have been used in “superficial” and “unethical” ways by universities when it comes to including their people and culture at those institutions.

Research published today found Māori and Pacific postgraduate students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields feel attempts to include them are often “tokenistic”, including when it comes to applying for funding. 

The study looks at the experiences of 43 current or past postgraduate students at New Zealand universities. 

The researchers say those experiences have ultimately created a “culturally unsafe” space. 

Some students revealed they have been used in unethical “box-ticking” exercises on funding applications, with their names used to secure funding for projects they did not want to be part of.

One student wrote: “My name (my mana and reputation) was used against my will to secure funding for a project that I refused multiple times to be part of.”

Pacific students also discovered they were named as Māori investigators on some funding applications.

The researchers said “our bodies, names, and whakapapa are misappropriated to fulfil tokenistic roles in funding applications to bolster the careers of non-Māori and non-Pacific academics”.

Students ‘prevented from being authentic selves’

However, the survey found this is just one way in which postgraduate students believe institutions – and their science faculties in particular – currently underserve Māori and Pacific people.

The research delved into the effects of the “white imprint” - where white behaviour is rewarded and incentivised - with Māori and Pacific students saying they are prevented from being their authentic selves at university.

It also revealed insights into how Māori and Pacific postgraduates experience excess (and often unpaid) labour, including being asked by universities to give “token” guest lectures, feature in marketing material and participate in mihi whakatau (a speech of greeting) without senior Māori or cultural advisor support.

Some students say they were expected to provide cultural guidance they didn’t feel qualified to give.

A student who took part in the study said “one example is being asked by a very senior member of my institution for some clarity around the meaning of 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.”

Māori and Pacific identities ‘erased’

The research also found students felt like their identities were erased when they didn’t align with white structures.

“I was taught how to be an excellent Pākehā scientist, not an excellent Māori scientist,” one student said.

Another student said they always felt a sense of separation, “that I was expected to check being Māori at the door, before entering the lab”. 

Some students say their faculty “actively discouraged” the use of mātauranga (traditional Māori knowledge) in their research.

Māori and Pacific postgraduates also noted a lack of basic cultural competency and cultural safety while at university, including no attempts to correctly pronounce Māori words or peers and academics being openly racist.

While the individual experiences of the 43 research participants were different, together “the patterns of exclusion and disempowerment are clear”.

“Our stories speak to our strength and resilience, and advance our understandings of how universities continue to privilege some and fail to serve others.”

The researchers go on to ask universities“to do better today” and not simply by bolstering enrolments of Māori and Pacific postgraduates.

“We call for universities to move beyond tokenistic attempts at ‘inclusion’ and diversity [and] to instead deconstruct their institutional habits which continue to marginalise.”

Top Image: A university student taking notes. (File photo) Photo: iStock

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