The Tertiary Education Commission says hundreds of initiatives aimed at improving Māori and Pacific students' tertiary education pass rates are poorly-targeted distractions that are not working.
In a briefing to Education Minister Chris Hipkins the commission said gaps in Māori and Pacific students' achievement would persist unless universities and other institutions adopted a system-wide approach to equity that the commission had developed and tested.
"If the sector keeps doing what it has been doing, there will be no to little change in Māori and Pacific tertiary achievement," the briefing said.
"There have been hundreds of equity focused interventions across the tertiary education system to support under-served learners, with mixed results. Pilot projects come and go, but the necessary system level change to achieve parity of participation and achievement remains elusive. In many ways, these well-intentioned interventions have been a distraction from a focus on system-wide approaches."
The briefing published on the commission's website said the biggest equity gap was in bachelors degrees where less than half of Māori and Pacific learners completed their qualifications in six years compared with more than 62 percent of other learners.
It said the 17 percentage point gap had barely changed in the past six years.
The commission said it wanted institutions to introduce a "learner success" system called Ōritetanga that it had tested with some institutions.
It said the framework required whole-of-system changes to focus on the needs of their students at every level.
The briefing said the commission would need to provide financial incentives to encourage uptake of the model, but also impose "consequences" for poor performance.
"This will be the first higher education programme of its kind at a national level. There is an opportunity to lead the world in delivering an education system that truly works for all our learners and to realise system-wide equity in New Zealand," the document said.
It said the commission was already helping Te Pukenga, the national polytechnic and provider of work-based training, adopt the framework across all of its 16 polytechnics and institutes of technology.
The document said the commission would work with universities to get them to adopt it too.
University of Auckland academic Sereana Naepi said the TEC's work was exciting but it should name and shame any institutions that failed to improve.
"What concerns me is where's the transparency and accountability going to be?" Dr Naepi said.
"Let's find out who's doing well, share their practices, find out who's not doing well and hold them to account in a way that's not about blaming them but about saying 'what can we do to make you do better otherwise we're going to let Māori, Pacific and other equity groups know you're not serving them well so they can pick a different institution'," she said.
Te Kāhui Amokura is a Universities New Zealand group representing the senior Māori leaders of the eight universities.
Its chair, University of Waikato deputy vice-chancellor Māori Sarah-Jane Tiakiwai, said Ōritetanga was a huge improvement.
She said Waikato had tested the scheme by using data about students to understand what support they needed and when.
"It has made a difference in our ability to more specifically and effectively monitor through the data and using data to inform our system changes," she said.
Dr Tiakiwai said other changes, such as ensuring teaching was culturally inclusive of Māori students, were also needed.
"Ōritetanga allows us to capture one aspect of it but I think it's part of an ongoing programme and an ongoing need to remain vigilant around our responsiveness as a sector to the needs of Māori students," she said.
Universities New Zealand chief executive Chris Whelan said universities agreed they needed to do more and they would use the Ōritetanga approach.
"It's fair to say in the past targets have been set but there hasn't been any resourcing put around them. The thing that's really different about Ōritetanga and the thing that we really support is that for the first time it's actually government working with the sector as a sector and taking much more strategic approach to how do we deliver better outcomes for Māori and Pasifika students," he said.
The briefing said universities had a strong financial incentive to improve. A study recently found they were losing about $909 million a year from students of all ethnic backgrounds failing to convert pre-enrolment into enrolment or dropping out in their first year of study.