Given that most New Zealand universities aim to increase the number of Māori and Pacific students and staff, we have to wonder why their numbers in the research sector remain stubbornly low – and even lower in the ” STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) departments. .
Our previous research showed that one New Zealand university had not employed a Māori or Pacific academic in its science department for at least 20 years.
But while the numbers provided a snapshot of the workforce, they don’t explain it why so few Māori and Pacific explorers remain in the Tertiary system. Our latest research aims to better explain this by looking at the experiences of 43 former and current postgraduate STEM students.
We show that the under-representation of Māori and Pacific peoples cannot be solved by simply boosting university enrollment and dumping more students into a broken pipeline. Additionally, a lack of representation negatively impacts the Māori and Pacific postgraduates already in STEM courses.
Isolated and invisible
Universities are tasked with educating the next generation of scientists and building a sustainable scientific workforce. Graduates will continue to conduct research that provides solutions to emerging crises, informs national policy, and creates new knowledge to understand the world in which we live.
But do universities provide an environment in which Māori and Pacific graduate students can thrive and develop into the researchers society needs? In 2021, only 13% of domestic graduate students were Māori and 5% Pasifika.
Read more: Māori and Pasifika scholars remain severely underrepresented in New Zealand universities
Our research shows that universities still have a lot to do. This small number of Māori and Pacific students and staff also affects their educational experiences. Frequently isolated, some of those involved in the research said they felt invisible. As one put it:
The lack of Māori and Pacific postgraduate researchers 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, I found it difficult to make real connections with my fellow researchers.
This felt isolating at the time and was made worse by the fact that there were no Māori and Pacific staff in my areas of expertise.
Many Māori and Pacific STEM postgraduates reported experiencing forms of racism. This ranged from confusing them with Māori when they were Pasifika to dispelling common myths about free education and only at university due to targeted admissions programs.
Māori and Pacific postgraduates reported that their identities were erased when they failed to meet stereotypes about what to know or how to act. One of our interviewees said they were even told that they had to consider themselves “white” because they weren’t “playing Māori”.
Read more: Who will denounce the misogyny and abuse that is undermining women’s academic freedom in our universities?
It is often noted that Māori and Pacific academics experience ‘excess work’ – meaning they fulfill the dual role of being Māori or Pacific and being academic. But our research has found that this often starts at the postgraduate level.
Excess work includes dealing with racism, cultural expertise expectations, performing cultural protocols (such as Karakia and Mihi Whakatau), and fulfilling symbolic diversity roles such as photographing for university advertisements.
According to a person we spoke to:
I was immediately recognized as an expert on Kaupapa Māori even though I had only just begun my journey of researching the subject. We have often been embarrassed and expected to explain tikanga, te reo Māori, mātauranga Māori to others while at the same time being experts in non-indigenous science.
No more ticks
Our research also shows that New Zealand’s research funding system can lead to ethically questionable “check box” exercises that involve the symbolic inclusion of Māori and Pacific postgraduate students.
This ranged from students being accepted into grant applications despite refusing to participate, to Pacificians being designated as Māori investigators.
There have also been claims that Pākehā academics received research funding for projects purporting to include Māori and knowledge when in fact Māori were not included at all. As one of our employees wrote:
My name (my mana and reputation) was used against my will to secure funding for a project I had repeatedly refused to participate in.
Read more: More investment in literacy skills needed if NZ is serious about ending persistent inequalities for Pasifika students
Where to from here?
By incorporating the often unheard perspectives of Māori and Pacific postgraduates in STEM subjects, our research contributes to the growing evidence of how Māori and Pacific people are excluded from universities.
By sharing these experiences of racism, exclusion and marginalization, we wish to remind other Māori and Pacific students that they are not alone.
We also want to use this research to challenge New Zealand universities to move beyond symbolic attempts at “inclusion” and “diversity” and begin to dismantle the structures that continue to marginalize Māori and Pacific people and knowledge systems.
Our research underscores the urgent need for universities to transform the culturally insecure environment that continues to marginalize Māori and Pacific postgraduates.
Universities need to create an environment in which Māori and Pacific STEM postgraduates can move from survival to success. In this way, they can fight cancer, solve the freshwater crisis, or address the effects of climate change on their ancestral islands.