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Students outside the Maori Centre in 2002. Can you identify anybody? Photo courtesy of the Maori Centre.

Students outside the Maori Centre in 2002. Can you identify anybody? Photo courtesy of the Maori Centre.

Te Huka Matauraka – the Maori Centre – has contributed to a quiet revolution at Otago. The university had a few Maori students from the 1890s onwards (I’ve written about some of the earliest here), but numbers remained very low until the late 20th century. The Maori Club, founded by Maori students in 1960, became a focus for cultural and social activities, while the local Maori community also provided informal support to students. With just 20 or 30 students identifying as Maori in the 1960s and 1970s, it wasn’t difficult for them to all know one another. Numbers steadily grew through the 1980s – in 1987 Otago had 171 Maori students, representing 2% of enrolments. This was an improvement, but still a great under-representation of Maori, and students and the community campaigned for action by university authorities. The 1987 Watts Report on New Zealand universities commented, “The low participation of the Maori people in university studies is of very real concern.” While there had been recent positive initiatives relating to Maori in the universities (mostly beyond Otago), the report commented that “the Maori struggle for recognition in many aspects of New Zealand life is far from won either in the universities or elsewhere. We think that universities have a responsibility to give a lead to the rest of the community.”

In response to the Watts Report, the government released special equity funding. The University of Otago used its share to appoint its first Maori liaison officer, Khyla Russell (then Khyla Camp), in 1988, and to open the Maori Centre in 1989. The centre opened in an old house which had been a student flat, on the corner of Castle St, Montgomery Ave and St David St. At the end of 1989 the first administrator, Winsome Dacker, reported in newsletter Mea Maori that the centre was already a hive of activity. It had three main roles: to assist and retain existing university students; to provide a link between the university and the Maori community, including bridging programmes for adult students; and to support Maori school students “to stimulate a desire for further study” and help them qualify for entrance (the Watts Report had identified the small proportion of Maori completing higher secondary qualifications as a key factor in low university enrolment). It had also become more than this: many people turned to the centre for advice on things Maori, including advice on establishing bicultural approaches and providing translation. “Wherever possible we have assisted or been able to delegate the task”, reported Dacker.

Students from Bluff School outside the Maori Centre in 2000. Instilling a desire for tertiary education in young Maori was an important part of the centre's work. Image courtesy of the Maori Centre.

Students from Bluff School outside the Maori Centre in 2000. Instilling a desire for tertiary education in young Maori was an important part of the centre’s work. Image courtesy of the Maori Centre.

For 15 years the Maori Centre also provided a home for Arai Te Uru Kohanga Reo. The language nest had started at Arai Te Uru Marae and then moved to the Otago Polytechnic’s Maori Centre. It’s move to the new university Maori Centre fitted well with the needs of the many parents who were university staff or students. It also “enriched the centre with the living Maori language”. The young kohanga children provided “an obvious source of potential students who are completely ‘au fait’ with the University” and also drew “many Maori people who have not previously been on Campus”. As a bonus, the “two dedicated kaiako” (teachers) – Nanny Aya and Mereana Smith – were always ready to assist university students with their te reo Maori skills. The kohanga moved to Ravensbourne in 2004.

Health science students at a tutorial in the Maori Centre, 2000. Image courtesy of the Maori Centre.

Health science students at a tutorial in the Maori Centre, 2000. Image courtesy of the Maori Centre.

Tutorials were always at the heart of the Maori Centre’s work. They assisted students with study and exam skills, as well as with information relating to specific university courses. While the students were Maori, the tutors came from a wide range of backgrounds. “We look for the best,” regardless of ethnicity, comments current manager Pearl Matahiki. Among the first tutors were Mua and Linda Strickson-Pua, who were tutoring in the Department of Education and saw a need for additional support for Maori. Mua was a New Zealand Samoan studying theology; Linda was of English descent but raised among Maori in Ruatoria. “It is no mean feat dealing with students who are daunted by the University,” reported Mea Maori, but “this pair made study enjoyable and stimulating. Laughter was a feature of their group.” The tutorials took place – and when possible still do – in the Maori Centre itself, where the students could feel comfortable.

In 1991 administrator Miria Thorn noted that 60 students had used the Maori Centre tutorial programme in 1990, and all but 4 had passed their exams. An independent survey by the Department of Maori Studies also reported an increase in Maori pass rates. The centre was clearly contributing to Maori success, though it still ran on a shoe-string budget with volunteer tutors. The staff gradually expanded as the Maori roll grew. A tutor co-ordinator was appointed in 1990 and a part-time secretary in 1991; from 1991 the Maori liaison officer, previously based in the registry, also moved into the Maori Centre. The centre expanded into another old Castle Street house, leaving the kohanga in the original building. It eventually made its long-term home in two adjacent houses, linked together and refurbished with an attractive entrance; a third house is shared with Te Roopu Maori (the Maori Students Association). The centre’s original te reo Maori name, Te Hunga Matauranga, was later changed to Te Huka Matauraka to promote the local Kai Tahu dialect.

Poet Hone Tuwhare, awarded an honorary doctorate, with young graduates Rachel Potae (medicine) and Craig Campbell (dentistry) at the Maori Centre's pre-graduation celebration, December 1998. Image courtesy of the Maori Centre.

Poet Hone Tuwhare, awarded an honorary doctorate, with young graduates Rachel Potae (medicine) and Craig Campbell (dentistry) at the Maori Centre’s pre-graduation celebration, December 1998. Image courtesy of the Maori Centre.

By 1994 there were 877 Otago students who identified as Maori, making up 5.9% of the roll. Godfrey Pohatu, who headed the Department of Maori Studies, was delighted, giving kudos to Maori liaison, which took “the University of Otago to the people and to potential Maori students”, and “the excellent support networks”. Maori liaison officer Luella Narayan commented that “much of the credit should go to the Maori Centre Administrator who gives academic, psychological and social support to Maori students”. Maori student growth continued to stay ahead of the overall growth in the roll: by 2000, 6.2% of students were Maori and in 2013 there were 1682 Maori students, accounting for 9.2% of Otago’s domestic students. Celebrating Maori achievement was an important part of the centre’s ethos, and from 1996 it arranged special Maori pre-graduation celebrations for Maori graduates and their whanau.

Catering for all this growth of course required more resources. In 2000 the centre was restructured with permanent staff replacing contract positions. The dynamic Pearl Matahiki – known to many as Auntie Pearl – became manager, as she remains today. The staff also expanded to include a community liaison officer and counsellor (there are now 2 counsellors) as well as administrative staff. Two new programmes commenced in 2002 thanks to the Ministry of Education’s special grants to support Maori and Pacific Island tertiary students. These were Turaka Hou (Maori orientation) and Ka Rikarika a Tane (a mentoring programme). Eventually funding for these was added to the university’s regular budget. The orientation programme, designed to help first-year students with their transition to the university with tours and advice and a chance to meet local Maori, incorporated a powhiri on local marae.

A welcome for Maori students at Kati Huirapa Marae, Karitane, as part of Maori orientation in February 2007. Image courtesy of the Maori Centre.

A welcome for Maori students at Kati Huirapa Marae, Karitane, as part of Maori orientation in February 2007. Image courtesy of the Maori Centre.

Te Huka Matauraka is now 25 years old. It will be holding joint anniversary celebrations next year with Te Tumu – the School of Maori, Pacific and Indigenous Studies, which is marking the founding of the Department of Maori Studies in 1990. The centre certainly has great cause to celebrate, for it has played a big role in one of Otago’s greatest changes of recent decades: the massive growth of Maori participation. Do you have any stories to share of the Maori centre?

Staff outside the Maori Centre in 2014. Image courtesy of University of Otago Marketing and Communications.

Staff outside the Maori Centre in 2014. Image courtesy of University of Otago Marketing and Communications.

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