Cross-Examination: 'I Too, Deserve an Education' - UTAS and Affirmative Action in Tertiary Education


Recently, there have been debates regarding alternative schemes that help minority groups in universities throughout New Zealand.[1] The main issue is whether these alternative programs — such as the Undergraduate Targeted Admission Scheme (UTAS) — reflect or breach affirmative action.[2] Does providing extra assistance to those less fortunate reflect equality or equity or both? Or do these schemes actually go too far, and in fact privilege the minority?‘I, Too, Am Auckland’I, Too, Am Auckland is a student-based initiative at the University of Auckland which explores the experiences and perspectives of Maori and Pacifica students across a variety of academic disciplines, discussing their experiences with everyday colonialism and racism.The I, Too, Am Auckland campaign highlights the pros and cons of the UTAS. The UTAS exists in order to improve access to higher education for equity groups as well as to provide equal education opportunities to all Maori and Pacifica students and students from other UTAS groups (students with disabilities, low-socioeconomic and refugee backgrounds) who have the potential to participate and succeed in a university of high international standing.[3] Alternative pathway programmes such as the UTAS reflect positive discrimination, meaning that they aim to help disadvantaged groups to achieve the same outcomes as the majority in order to produce more equitable results.Why is there a gap in the first place?Research shows Maori students generally perform less well at school than non-Maori.[4] Statistics also indicate that Maori and Pacifica students are disadvantaged in primary and secondary education. The main reason stems from the background of parents, with Maori parents generally having less money and less education than non-Maori parents. Therefore the gap arguably begins at birth. For example, the employment rate of Maori and Pacifica groups are 59% and 56% respectively, whereas 67.3% of New Zealand Europeans are employed.[5] The average percentage of Maori and Pacifica groups leaving secondary education with NCEA Level 2 (which allows access to many non-University tertiary and further education courses) or above are 63.4% and 71.5% respectively, compared to the European percentage of 83.6%.[6] This suggests that, despite the three Treaty of Waitangi principles of partnership, participation and protection, social inequality hampers the access to higher education for Maori and Pacific Islanders.[7] This is reflected in Maori and Pacific Islanders’ poor performance in a number of indicators of inequality such as health, knowledge and skills, paid work, economic standard of living and social connectedness.[8] A particularly illustrative example is the income levels of different ethnic groups in New Zealand. Maori earn on average $629 per week whereas non-Maori earn $802 on average per week.[9] This, amongst other factors, sums up an environment where Maori and Pacifica students struggle to succeed.It is evident that Maori and Pacific Islanders face inequalities in education.[10] Hence, in order to increase equity in education and narrow the gap, a variety of measures has been taken. These programs all try to close the gap in educational opportunities produced by these social inequalities. However, some believe that UTAS schemes are in effect ‘giving more’ to Maori and Pacifica students, which is discriminatory against other students who have worked hard and entered through the ‘normal’ way. In short, the counterargument believes that alternative schemes are unnecessary.Why are alternative schemes necessary?One straightforward answer as to why these schemes are necessary, despite this alleged ‘favoritism, is that the Treaty of Waitangi says so.[11] The principles of the treaty outlines that there is a clear obligation on the Crown to provide access to education for Maori people, as education is one of the most fundamental vehicles to achieve improvement and development of Maori.[12] Hence, it seems rational that universities should adopt affirmative action policies to counteract the imbalanced starting point of the minorities.But we come back to this question: is it fair that Maori and Pacific Island students are getting alternative treatments because of their racial background? Schemes such as UTAS may seem unfair on the surface because they give an advantage to Maori and Pacifica over other groups. This claim can be easily accepted if it was assumed that all ethnic groups were equal, with equal rights, resources, opportunities, social status, and economic backgrounds. However, many social statistics suggest that Maori and Pacific Islanders are worse off in areas such as education, health and interaction with the criminal justice system.[13]According to the Treaty of Waitangi, our government has a responsibility to correct these inequalities for Maori. Specifically, the s 181 of the Education Act 1989 places various duties on the Council of universities, one of which is “a duty to acknowledge the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi”.[14] The existence of these schemes indicates that universities acknowledge that inequalities do exist, and they are endeavoring to restore equality through equitable methods.Equity vs Equality – is it fair? The concept of equity and equality are sometimes used interchangeably. However, schemes such as the UTAS program demonstrate how, in some circumstances, these apparently similar terms can call for very different outcomes.For example, in a system based on ‘equality’, wealthy and high-performing Pakeha students receive the same amount of resources as the minority, low-income and special-needs students. On the other hand, in a system based on ‘equity’, minority, low-income and special-needs students might receive relatively more resources in an attempt to compensate for and overcome preexisting flaws that might place them at an educational disadvantage. For some, the equal distribution of resources may seem equitable since it is fair and just. However, others may view equal resource allocation as inequitable because it fails to consider the preexisting inequities in society that may have disadvantaged students in an educational or aspirational manner — such as racial discrimination or income inequality.[15]The UTAS program is not trying to advantage Maori and Pacifica students over other groups. As noted by University of Auckland law school senior lecturer Khylee Quince, these schemes should be seen as “restorative justice, not affirmative action”.[16] It is not about privileging the minority; it is about letting people get their foot in the door, and bringing students up to the level playing field. It must be emphasized that just because a student comes in with slightly lower grades, it certainly does not mean that they will come out less competent.Perhaps a better way to put it would be this: equity is the process and equality is the outcome. We cannot all be equal if we are not brought up to the same playing field.


[1] Russell Brown “The crybaby philosopher” (31 July 2014) Public Address .[2] Brown; Chanelle Cattin “Affirmative Action: A Legitimate Concept?” (LLB (Hons) Dissertation, University of Auckland, 2013).[3] The University of Auckland “UTAS: Undergraduate Targeted Admission Schemes” <>.[4] Statistics New Zealand “Employment” <>.[5] Statistics New Zealand “18-year olds with higher qualifications” <>.[6] Ministry of Education “The New Zealand Curriculum Treaty of Waitangi Principle” (16 January 2012) .[7] Anne Else “Maori Participation and Performance in Education: A Literature Review and Research Programme” (May 1997) Education Counts <>.[8] Lisa Marriott and Dalice Sim “Indicators of inequality and Pacific People” (August 2014) Victoria University of Wellington <>.[9] Statistics New Zealand “Income for all people by Maori, Non-Maori, region, and broad age groups” <>.[10] I, Too, Am Auckland “I, Too Am Auckland; TAS/Tuakana” YouTube .[11] Ministry of Justice “The Wananga Capital Establishment Report” (1999) Waitangi Tribunal <>.[12] At 9–10.[13] Marriott Dalice Sim, above n 2; Maori make up 51% of the total prison population, compared to the 33% of Europeans: Statistics New Zealand “New Zealand’s prison population” < >.[14] Cattin, above n 2, at 14.[15] Marriott and Sim, above n 12.[16] I, Too, Am Auckland, above n 10.The views expressed in the posts and comments of this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Equal Justice Project. They should be understood as the personal opinions of the author. No information on this blog will be understood as official. The Equal Justice Project makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or found by following any link on this site. The Equal Justice Project will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information nor for the availability of this information.