The Tertiary Education Commission has given universities, polytechnics and other tertiary institutions 10 years to end persistent disparities between the pass rates of Māori and Pacific students and those of others.
It's the third time in the past decade the commission has set a deadline for achieving parity.
In 2012 the commission wanted to eradicate disparities in polytechnics by 2015 and in universities by 2018. But that didn't happen. In 2018-19 the commission aimed to achieve parity within five years and fined institutions that failed to improve. But it quietly dropped that deadline and last year introduced the 10-year target.
Tertiary Education Commission deputy chief executive, Learner Success Ōritetanga Directorate, Paora Ammunson, said past attempts at tackling the disparities had failed because they were based on isolated interventions.
"One of the frustrations I guess is that our approach to equity has tended to be really well-intentioned but quite bespoke and disconnected piecemeal interventions and we're at a stage in the TEC now where we realise that's not going to close the gap, that's not going to serve the learners well that we want to succeed," he said.
Ammunson said the commission had been trialling a different approach requiring large-scale whole-of-institution changes.
"The solution is going to be about a whole-of-ecosystem approach in those institutions towards tackling the problem of attrition, really taking a holistic approach to that. Using your data intelligence, using your guidance systems, making sure that your leaders are setting the direction, making sure you're doing it in partnership with the community groups and organisations that are important in your context," he said.
He said the commission was confident its approach would work.
"We've been testing this model with tertiary partners. It will require us to work with them and it will require us to have sometimes hard conversations about parts of their delivery that aren't achieving what they and the TEC would be expecting."
Last year universities had a qualification completion rate of 52 percent and course completion rate of 82 percent for Māori students. For Pacific students the figures were 48 and 75 percent, while for non-Māori and non-Pacific students the figures were 66 and 90 percent.
In polytechnics Māori students had a 48 percent qualification completion rate and 70 percent course completion rate. For Pacific students the rates were 46 and 71 percent, and for non-Māori and non-Pacific students the figures were 57 and 84 percent.
The Tauira Pasifika National President of the Union of Students' Associations, Jaistone Finau, said the time was right to tackle the disparities.
He said tertiary institutions were taking student wellbeing more seriously and were also moving to introduce a new code for pastoral care.
Finau said institutions should treat students as partners and use their insights to improve completion and retention rates.
Te Mana Akonga tumukai takirua (co-president of the Māori students' association), Nkhaya Paulsen-More, said universities had not been doing enough to help Māori students achieve.
"University strategies seem to be aligning with Tiriti-led policies but on the ground we're still getting complaints from students that they don't see much of a change," she said.
"Things like 'my lecturer doesn't understand me because I'm Māori and they don't respect the fact that I'm not the person to go to automatically if they don't understand anything that's Māori', so being referred to as the cultural trainer in formal settings or utilising their knowledge without reimbursing them for that knowledge."
The organisation's other tumuaki takirua, Renāta White, said if the commission used financial penalties against institutions that failed to make progress, it should require the institutions to spend the money on improvements.
"I would rather the funds go back into supporting the students. So if there is a fine they are fined needing to employ maybe more support and mental health or more support and peer mentorship rather than the funds going back to government," he said.
Huhāna Wātene from the Tertiary Education Union said universities and polytechnics could make a big difference for Māori students by hiring more Māori academics and tutors.
She said students also needed more culturally-appropriate support.
"In institutes whether it be in schools, polytechnics, kohanga, kura, it's the services that are wrapped round them [students] that really assist and allow them to flourish. If you put any students, not just Māori and Pasifika, in that kind of environment they can't do anything but do well," she said.
"We know for a fact that Māori students do exceedingly well when they have that support services around them or people who value and appreciate their cultural aspirations and the tikanga."
Wātene said the commission should use incentives rather than penalties to encourage change.