Talented young Māori ending up on 'hands-on' courses instead of university - study

A thorough examination of our education system has found that south Aucklanders have never been more learned and qualified than ever before, but generally for rangatahi Māori, the path from education to employment can be a slippery slope to navigate.

"They're doing the right thing, they're studying hard but unfortunately that's not paying off when they hit the labour market," says Tania Pouwhare from the Southern Initiative.

Pouwhare was part of He Awa Ara Rau, a two-year study of 76,000 Māori from ages 15 to 25, which revealed that qualifications don't necessarily lead to better outcomes.

"Our communities are often ones that need more wealth-building, not less so the decisions that they make around the kind of livelihoods that they'll earn are becoming even more important," Pouwhare says.

"One of the key things that research points to is that we have got to significantly heighten our aspirations for young Māori and not to be diverting them into the more hands-on vocational education. What we've found is so many young Māori have the potential to go further, to go faster into different areas, into different industries, different types of skills, but they get streamed that are stereotypically associated with Māori - with being working class- and that's the first thing that we need to change," she says.

"If our young people leave school before year 13, then there really are only a limited number of options if they can't get a job, then go onto tertiary education through a Polytechnic or through a private training establishment is realistically the only option that they have if they don't want to go on the dole, if indeed they're eligible for it in the first place".

Among the key concerns raised by the study is the high number of rangatahi who drop out of school early and enrol in certificate courses at private tertiary establishments (PTEs). 

 "It comes back to having better-informed choices. We would never say to someone if their absolute passion was to be a chef, to dissuade them from that, but they should be able to go into hospitality or food and beverage courses with their eyes wide open about what the labour market-end of that looks like.

"Young people who stay at school and complete their year 13 and then they go to the labour force after that, by the time they're 25 they tend to do better than young people who leave school earlier, don't complete to year 13 and go into certificate courses in tertiary institutions," says Pouwhare.

Currently there's more than 700 PTEs in the country offering vocational training in programmes from hospitality to welding. But these courses don't always lead to better incomes and employment opportunities. 

"I think there's an issue of quantity over quality and this is where the Government can play a major role in being more discerning about the types of courses that are available. We have been calling for the fairly ruthless decommissioning of courses which we know to be of low value and the research backed us up on that," she adds.

 And it's not just vocational training that's leaving Māori struggling, even a university degree that looks good on paper, doesn't necessarily translate to a decent wage.

"My parents always pushed me to go to tertiary education to go to university to get my degree. I think for my parents it was security," says Tokahi Kuri.

Tania Pouwhare.
Tania Pouwhare. Photo credit: The Hui

Despite graduating with a Bachelor of Arts with honours, 25-year-old primary school teacher Tokahi Kuri doesn't feel like she's any further ahead than her peers who left school for low-skilled jobs.

"I have a lot of friends that left high school and went straight to work, straight into the workforce and right now I guess they are getting probably the same amount if not higher than me. 

"And I guess what they don't have that I have is a student loan, a massive student loan a massive debt that I need to pay back and this pay back is not going to be for the next 10 years - it's going be for the next 20 or so years."

"The reality is that in certain qualifications in certain areas they are going to stack up a lot of student loan debt and then they're not going to be able to earn the kind of money that they need to get out of that debt let alone the kind of life they'd like to live," Tania Pouwhare adds.

 "Throughout my life it's always been highlighted that the higher, more qualifications you get the higher they are, the more income you'll get and the better your life will kind of be," says Kuri.

"I think we have a real challenge with some of the professions like teaching and nursing. These are good professions, they are noble professions and people spend a lot of time studying hard and becoming qualified in these roles only to find that when they hit the labour market the occupations that they have trained for, are really under-valued, and therefore underpaid. It's one of those things is that we need to look at how our economy values certain occupations over others," says Pouwhare.

The problem isn't that Māori students are failing at school - it's that schools are failing Māori students, another area the He Awa Ara Rau report has identified as requiring urgent action. 

 "We want our young people to stay in school, and complete their University Entrance, complete their Year 13 and then go on to high value, high quality tertiary education. That's really going to set them up for a good future," Pouwhare says.