Sharples hits a nerve

01:50, Aug 27 2009

Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples's call for open entry to universities for all Maori has sure struck a nerve - as the canny Sharples knew it would.

The colourful Maori Party co-leader was well aware when he made his comments yesterday that they would provoke a response, and that the idea would be immediately slapped down by Prime Minister John Key.

That's why he didn't tell the Prime Minister first. If he had brought the idea up with National's leader, and Key had said something like "that's certainly an interesting idea, Pita, why don't you go and do some more work on that?'' then it would have been more difficult for Sharples to then flag the idea publicly.

Sharples knows the idea is never going to happen. For starters, National is trying to move away from affirmative action programmes for specific ethnic groups. That was Closing the Gaps, the ill-fated set of expensive but ultimately futile programmes set up by Labour in its first term.

Second, Key would look like an enormous hypocrite if he allowed Maori into universities as-of-right while at the same time he is trying to argue that Maori should not have special representation on the Auckland super city by dint of their ethnicity.

Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples's call for open entry to universities for all Maori has sure struck a nerve - as the canny Sharples knew it would.

The colourful Maori Party co-leader was well aware when he made his comments yesterday that they would provoke a response, and that the idea would be immediately slapped down by Prime Minister John Key.

That's why he didn't tell the Prime Minister first. If he had brought the idea up with National's leader, and Key had said something like "that's certainly an interesting idea, Pita, why don't you go and do some more work on that?'' then it would have been more difficult for Sharples to then flag the idea publicly.

Sharples knows the idea is never going to happen. For starters, National is trying to move away from affirmative action programmes for specific ethnic groups. That was Closing the Gaps, the ill-fated set of expensive but ultimately futile programmes set up by Labour in its first term.

Second, Key would look like an enormous hypocrite if he allowed Maori into universities as-of-right while at the same time he is trying to argue that Maori should not have special representation on the Auckland super city by dint of their ethnicity.

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Third, Key is well aware that the general public would be outraged by such a move - particularly the mums and dads of non-Maori who either can't afford to go to university or are unable to make the grade academically.

And lastly, such a move would fly in the face of the move away from the "bums on seats'' model that National introduced in a previous life when it was last in government. Put simply, the country can't afford to let everyone into universities any more.

The Government is actually cutting university budgets, which is what has led to restrictions on so many first-year courses these days.

None of which stops Sharples from trying, however, and nor should it. I know that he should as an Associate Education Minister toe the Government line, but personally I expect Sharples to be a passionate advocate for his people. As long as Key doesn't actually agree to this hare-brained idea, I'm happy for Sharples to push it.

For one thing, it's good to have a debate about the place of education in our society, and remind ourselves that it's pretty much the only thing that is going to get us out of the economic backwater in which New Zealand now resides.

And it's true that Maori participation statistics in tertiary education are appalling, and something needs to be done about it. I just think Sharples has the wrong end of the stick. There's little point letting more Maori into university if they are simply going to fail.

There's no way universities are going to relax their standards for awarding degrees, because to do so would be fatal to their international reputations. So simply shovelling Maori - or anyone, for that matter - who would otherwise not qualify into university is not only going to cause the institutions a world of trouble but also badly dent what little self-confidence the failed students have left.

A better question might be why so few Maori make the grade to get into university in the first place. And I suspect that can be traced all the way back through the school system to early childhood and the child's parents. I'm sure Sharples would argue that is all the system's fault, and perhaps part of it is. Though I think Maori could probably shoulder some of the blame as well.

As I say, though, the debate is a needed one. Just recently Canterbury University vice-chancellor Rod Carr had a good serve at the Prime Minister for cutting funding in real terms to universities and polytechnics, and I think this issue is going to become a hot topic in the months to come.

Personally I would rather the Government put the additional $750 million it shovels into the health black hole every year into tertiary education instead. I reckon it would pay huge dividends.