how Māori and Pacific science graduates are still marginalized at university

Given that most New Zealand universities have targets to increase the number of Māori and Pacific students and staff, we have to ask why their numbers still remain stubbornly low in the research sector – and even lower in departments “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). .

Our previous research showed that one New Zealand university had failed to recruit a Māori or Pacific academic into its science department for at least 20 years.

But while the numbers provide a snapshot of the workforce, they don’t explain why so few Māori and Pacific researchers remain in the higher education system. Our latest research aims to explain this better by looking at the experiences of 43 past and current postgraduate STEM students.

We show that simply increasing university enrollments and getting more students into a broken pipeline will not solve Māori and Pacific under-representation. Furthermore, the lack of representation negatively affects those Māori and Pacific students already on STEM courses.

Isolated and invisible

Universities are charged with training the next generation of scientists and cultivating a sustainable scientific workforce. Graduates will go on to conduct research that provides solutions to emerging crises, informs national policy and creates new knowledge to help understand the world in which we live.

But are universities providing an environment in which Māori and Pacific postgraduate students can flourish and develop into the researchers society needs? In 2021, only 13% of Indigenous PhD students are Māori and 5% are Pacific.

Read more: Māori and Pasifika scholars remain severely underrepresented in New Zealand universities

Our research shows that universities still have a lot of work to do. This low number of Māori and Pacific students and staff also affects their educational experience. Often isolated, some of the research participants said they felt invisible. As one said:

The lack of Māori and Pacific postgraduate researchers has made my life as a Pacific researcher difficult.

Coming from a different background, with a different perspective, and different skills to bring to the table, it was difficult for me to make any real connections with my fellow researchers.

At the time this felt isolating and was made worse by the fact that there were no Māori and Pacific staff in my areas of expertise.

Stubborn racism

Many Māori and Pacific postgraduate students in STEM subjects report experiencing forms of racism. This ranges from being mistaken for Maori when they were Pasifika, to having to dispel common myths about getting a free education and only being at university because of targeted admissions schemes.

Māori and Pacific postgraduate students report that their identities are erased if they do not fulfill the stereotypes of what they should know or how they should act. One of our interviewees said they were even told they should consider themselves ‘white’ because they didn’t ‘act like Maori’.

Read more: Who will call out the misogyny and abuse undermining women’s academic freedom in our universities?

It is often noted that Māori and Pacific scholars experience ‘redundancy’ – meaning that they perform the dual roles of being Māori or Pacific as well as being an academic. But our research found that this often starts at postgraduate level.

Redundant labor includes dealing with racism, expectations of cultural expertise, performing cultural protocols (such as karakia and mihi whakatu) and performing symbolic roles for diversity, such as shooting for a university advertisement.

According to one person we spoke to:

I was immediately considered an expert on kaupapa Māori, but I had only just begun my journey to research this. We were often put on the spot and expected to explain tikanga, te reo Māori, mātauranga Māori to others while being experts in non-indigenous science.

A word cloud showing the most common descriptions of Māori and Pacific postgraduate experiences in university STEM courses.
Provided author

End of bookmarks

Our research also shows that New Zealand’s research funding system can lead to ethically questionable ‘box-ticking’ exercises involving the token inclusion of Māori and Pacific postgraduate students.

This ranges from students being included in funding applications even though they have declined to participate, to Pacific people being named as Māori investigators.

There were also allegations that Pākehā scientists received research funding for projects that purported to involve Māori people and knowledge, when in fact no Māori were involved at all. As one of our contributors wrote:

My name (my mana and reputation) was used against my will to secure funding for a project I repeatedly refused to participate in.

Read more: More investment in literacy skills needed if New Zealand is serious about ending persistent disparities for Pacific students

Where to from here?

By including the often unheard perspectives of Māori and Pacific majors in STEM subjects, our research adds to the growing body of evidence detailing how Māori and Pacific people are excluded from universities.

By sharing these experiences of racism, exclusion and marginalisation, we want to remind other Māori and Pacific students that they are not alone.

We also want to use this research to challenge New Zealand’s universities to move beyond symbolic attempts at ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ and begin to break down the structures that continue to marginalize Māori and Pacific people and knowledge systems.

Our research highlights the urgent need for universities to change the culturally precarious environment that continues to marginalize Māori and Pacific postgraduates.

Universities must create an environment where Māori and Pacific majors in STEM subjects can move from survival to prosperity. That way, they can continue to fight cancer, solve the freshwater crisis, or deal with the effects of climate change on their ancestral islands.

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