Maori vice chancellor calls for more fundamental education revolution
Eleanor Hall reported this story on Tuesday, December 15, 2009 12:39:00
ELEANOR HALL: The Federal Government is always keen to promote what it calls its education revolution. But a Maori academic from a tribal university in New Zealand says that any attempt to improve the lot of Indigenous Australians must be accompanied by a more fundamental education revolution.
Professor Graham Hingangaroa Smith is the vice chancellor of the Te Whare Wananga University in New Zealand and he says that Indigenous knowledge must be included in the Western academy.
Professor Hingangaroa Smith advised governments from Alaska to Brazil about Indigenous education and he is now in Australia to deliver the Sydney Ideas Lecture at Sydney University tonight.
He spoke to me earlier.
Professor Hingangaroa Smith, thanks very much for coming in. What do you mean when you say that you want to bring Indigenous knowledge into universities? Are you talking about more courses on Indigenous culture and history or are you talking about a different approach to knowledge and learning?
GRAHAM HINGANGAROA SMITH: I think it is the latter, Eleanor. Many of our students working on Indigenous issues and problems, they look to the wall of the academy and they see various Western theories hanging there. Some of them are relevant and some are very useful but at other times the tools just don’t fit and so the argument really is about hanging some additional tools on the wall of the academy.
ELEANOR HALL: So what exactly are these tools? What sort of things? Can you give us an example?
GRAHAM HINGANGAROA SMITH: Well, they are tools around the framing of Indigenous methodologies, Indigenous approaches to research, for example notions such as individualism and the notion of collectivity.
Often a lot of our theoretical positioning is built around the notion of individual perspective and doesn’t really take full account of a notion of collectivity, which Indigenous people still operate in that framework.
This, of course, in a New Zealand context has come to a head in our treaty settlement process. The courts, of course, recognise individual rights and personal rights and so on but we have had a great deal of difficulty recognising the notion of collective rights and how they might be compensated.
ELEANOR HALL: So what are the concrete benefits of bringing this sort of knowledge into the university system? I mean does it mean that more Indigenous students go through the system?
GRAHAM HINGANGAROA SMITH: Again, I want to just express my ambivalence about this notion because certainly there is some knowledge I believe which shouldn’t really be in the institutional context and sacred knowledge is a good example.
On the other hand there are some things which I think are, if you like, universal in that sense. The negative impact of crisis in education – there is a universal element here when we look at different Indigenous populations. The common feature is often high and disproportionate levels of underachievement or nonparticipation or underdevelopment and nonetheless a crisis in terms of not accessing education to its fullest extent.
ELEANOR HALL: And so what difference does it make for this crisis, as you call it, to have Indigenous knowledge incorporated into the academy?
GRAHAM HINGANGAROA SMITH: Well, I think it gives opportunity for success. Immediately there is a connection that people feel that their knowledge is valued. That there is a part, they see themselves reflected in the academy. That is an obvious benefit straight away.
ELEANOR HALL: Tell us how it works at your university in New Zealand.
GRAHAM HINGANGAROA SMITH: We have what we call Wananga, three indigenous higher education institutions. Our particular Wananga is called Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi. It is based in Whakatane, a small resort town on the east coast of New Zealand and we have about 3,500 students.
We have a PhD program of about 40 students in that. Over 100 Masters students. We do a generic Bachelor of Indigenous Humanities degree and nursing program and various other programs but where we are different is that we offer a lot of those programs through the medium of Maori language.
We offer it in the heart of our communities of need and it is very much, if you like, a Maori ambience but we, a different pathway I would say but with the same aspirations and goals as any other institution in New Zealand.
ELEANOR HALL: So you have nursing. How, for example, would that differ the way that you teach it in your university from the way it would be taught in one of the more traditional universities?
GRAHAM HINGANGAROA SMITH: What we are trying to do is provide nurses who have cultural nuance, who are able to respond to Maori patients’ needs in particular ways. Now the premise of all of this change and challenge to the academy is again, not to undo the academy. It is actually to build the academy and to make it more effective and more relevant to a wider range of the community.
You cannot have socioeconomic redevelopment of Indigenous populations without a prior or simultaneous educational revolution otherwise they just become a bag of tricks and they are short term and they are not sustainable over the long term.
So if you are talking about sustainable socioeconomic redevelopment of our Indigenous populations, we need to get stuck into making a change in our education system.
ELEANOR HALL: Well, there is a lot of talk in Australia about an education revolution. What do you recommend for Australia?
GRAHAM HINGANGAROA SMITH: I think Australia needs to pick up the idea of multiple interventions in many sites and it is not useful to look entirely at New Zealand for Australia. Australia has its own circumstances here. Many different languages in the Aboriginal community for example but here in Australia there is a need, I think, to be responsive to communities, to build critical mass of transformers.
ELEANOR HALL: A lot of people advocate having Aboriginal scholarships to prestigious schools and universities here in Australia. Is that a system that you would support?
GRAHAM HINGANGAROA SMITH: It is a surface, superficial response in my view because on their own, they actually don’t work. You end up privatising the potential for making the change. So what you need to do is to actually be nuanced about the way in which those scholarships are developed so that the return for the public investment is in the change and the transformation that comes down the line.
That seems to me often the failure. We end up just developing what I call privatised academics who are simply going to build their own careers, bank their own money in their own flash bank accounts and so on and the potential for contributing to change is lost.
ELEANOR HALL: Professor Hingangaroa Smith, thanks very much for joining us.
GRAHAM HINGANGAROA SMITH: Thank you very much.
ELEANOR HALL: That is Professor Graham Hingangaroa Smith, the vice chancellor of Te Whare Wananga University in New Zealand and he is giving the Sydney Ideas Lecture tonight at the University of Sydney.