A couple of weeks ago, I promised I would tell you the story of Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, the entirely Maori-run polytechnic with over 35,000 students. So here it is.
The 1970s saw significant Aboriginal cultural revivals in many parts of the world. Aboriginal higher education – or at least the access of aboriginal peoples to mainstream higher education – was a significant part of that. In Canada, the struggle was mostly about gaining a foothold in mainstream institutions; in the United States, the focus was much more on creating aboriginal-controlled institutions, known as tribal colleges and universities. In New Zealand, the Maori journey in higher education was similar to the US in that it involved creating their own separate institutions, and then later seeking recognition for them. The result was a class of institutions called “Wānangas” (a term that roughly equates with “knowledge”).
The first Wānanga (Te Wānanga o Raukawa) focused mostly on language and culture, and had relatively small enrolments (still under 1,000). The second, Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, was more focussed on skill acquisition – mainly Maori arts and crafts, but also with courses in tourism and computer skills. They were a fairly marginal institution, too, until they caught a big break in the late 1980s when the Education Act was being re-written. At the time, New Zealand’s governing Labour Party was putting the country through a major free-market revolution. In education, that meant caring more about outcomes and outputs than about the provider’s pedigree. It was also a time when the government was making concerted efforts to improve relations between Maori and Pakeha, and treat the Treaty of Waitangi with some respect. And so, when it came time to write the Act, they decided to give Wānanga status as a fourth official type of tertiary education, alongside universities, polytechnics, and privates. That guaranteed them some annual funding, but because the government was in financial straits, there was no money available for capital.
That’s where things got interesting. Part of the whole return to the Treaty of Waitangi involved creating a Treaty Tribunal to adjudicate cases where Maori felt that public policy were not in keeping with the terms of the treaty. Te Wānanga o Aotearoa decided to challenge the capital funding policy, arguing that they were a recognized form of education but had been unable to benefit, as others had, from public capital spending. The tribunal agreed with them, handing the Wānanga what looked to be a whopping cash settlement. Cannily, however, they played a long game and negotiated a reduced settlement on capital in exchange for a straight per-student funding agreement with – and this is crucial – no cap on numbers.
It was at this point that all manner of fun broke loose. The funding deal allowed Te Wānanga o Aotearoa to indulge all its most entrepreneurial instincts, and the school went from having 1,000 students in 1998 to having 65,000 students in 2002. This involved a lot of institutional change in terms of widening the scope of the types of programs it offered, and it involved a lot of community delivery – at one point they had over 300 teaching sites. Its ability to attract significant numbers of non-Maori students – particularly recent immigrants – was another important factor.
But it also involved cutting some corners. In 2005, the Auditor-General came down hard on the school, suggesting (basically) that while Te Wānanga o Aotearoa may have done wonders in expanding access, it would have been nice if they had kept some actual receipts for their spending. The resultant tighter enforcement rules drove down enrolments to roughly 30,000, where they remain today. In the short-term, that caused a bit of a financial crisis, as well as layoffs. But in the longer term it probably made the organization stronger, and it remains by far the world’s largest aboriginal-controlled institution of higher education, delivering thousands of recognized tertiary credentials each year, including some at the Bachelor’s level.
The Wānanga model is not one we’ve adopted in Canada, but for those leaders in government and aboriginal organizations seeking to expand educational opportunities for aboriginal Canadians, there are a lot of important lessons to be drawn from Te Wānanga o Aotearoa’s experience. We should pay heed to them.