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Julie Webb-Pullman: Where the Wild Wananga Are

Where the Wild Wananga Are

By Julie Webb-Pullman

Oh, no – I must be in my second childhood! Or Maurice Sendak has taken over the education sector... .which might not be such a bad thing, given recent events. It seems that several individuals have been making mischief of one kind or another, although it has yet to be demonstrated that Max was even one of them. But to bed without his supper he was sent, while Ken Shirley and friends roared their terrible roars, parliament gnashed its terrible teeth, and the Wananga Council rolled it terrible eyes - until Helen said “Be still!” and tamed them with the magic trick of sternly staring into all of their eyes at once, and taking away their pocket money. So while the wild rumpus rages, with government appointees moving in and the Auditor-General working overtime to complete his investigations, (not to mention the unofficial opening of the election campaign), let’s play ‘Find the wood amongst the trees’ of the forest that has grown around Te Wananga o Aotearoa (TWoA), and deal to some of those vines before they choke the life out of it.

TWoA has become the second-largest tertiary education provider in the country, not because of any alleged rorts or inducements by various staff, but because it is meeting a desperate need, and it is doing so in a manner that is appropriate and acceptable to the people whose needs it seeks to fill. No number of politically-correct red herrings, such as the ‘educational standards’ rhetoric or the ‘degree course’ requirement, disguise the fundamental fact that those every same standards, and the systems and institutions delivering them, have for a hundred years abjectly failed the people flocking to TWoA, both Maori and Pakeha. Besides, it’s kind of difficult to get a degree if you are not even functionally literate, if you are working crazy hours or raising broods of kids, or all of the above, and have to snatch a few moments here, half an hour there, to so much as decipher a few lines of a newspaper, let alone a text book. And since when was a degree the only legitimate and desirable outcome of ‘education’? Longman defines education as “the process of teaching and learning”, other dictionaries variously include “the knowledge or skill obtained or developed by a learning process”, and “an instructive or enlightening experience”. Surely engaging, stimulating and increasing the mental capacity of every individual is a desirable public good in its own right? Surely society benefits by having happier, more confident, productive and creative citizenry with a genuine sense of their own worth, and their ability to contribute constructively to their own and others’ lives and well-being? Surely this is why access to education is considered a human right? I don’t recall any of the Declarations or Conventions stipulating a degree education…….

TWoA has had the courage to confront the most basic problems facing Maori progress, and to attempt to address the core of the problem rather than tinkering around the edges. Acknowledging the astronomical levels of functional illiteracy, and seeking evidence-based solutions from the best the world has to offer regardless of ‘political considerations’, such as the Cuban literacy project, may have invoked criticism from some quarters, but ultimately provides more potential to get those people onto the playing field so they have even half a chance of playing the game, than demonstrably anything else to date. Remember – the rules aren’t made up by one side anymore – if there is a genuine commitment to the Treaty, and to Maori development, then Maori must be guaranteed access to acceptable means of gaining the skills and knowledge necessary to meaningfully participate. TWoA is providing exactly that.

TWoA’s innovative approaches in both the content and delivery of its programmes are at the heart of its growth, and of its successes. As in any human endeavour there will be mistakes made, there will be failures – and given the chance they will learn from them. In the words of the 2003 NZ Institute of Economic Research report “Ka Awatea Tuarua: An Interpretation of the New Dawn”:
“Te Wânanga o Aotearoa is providing ‘second chance’ access opportunities to tertiary education for a large number of New Zealand people nationwide. These students are amongst the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our economy and society. The fast growth of the institution can legitimately be seen as an indication of its success – at least in terms of engagement – in an area of educational endeavour previously notable for the failure of successive policy efforts…They were not able to generate the level of response and commitment that Te Wânanga is achieving…Te Wânanga has created an iwi-wide Mâori-friendly, educational system that is already a modern, attractive, accessible and national institution…The graduates are of sufficient quality to be able to join the sector of the workforce they are now aspiring to, with their new skills, or to proceed to further study at other tertiary institutions, such as universities.”

The NZIER report concludes:
“…we want to underline the way evidence strongly suggests that Te Wânanga is having a much larger national economic and social impact (per student) than is typical of the other New Zealand tertiary institutions…Looking at the economic value alone, this institution may be seen as having a perceptible impact on measurable percentage growth in GDP. On the figures cited, rough though these might be, the wânanga’s effect on GDP is already approaching the contribution of the forestry sector…” Can we see the wood for the trees now?

No-one denies the need “… to have a management and governance structure that meets and exceeds that needed by a publicly accredited and funded organisation.” But this should not be at the expense of TWoA’s culture of innovation, and self-management. Putting in the government ‘big boys’ will not allow the development of the requisite skills and knowledge – it is like a parent doing it for the kid, instead of letting them learn from their mistakes, even if they do sometimes get hurt, if occasionally something does get broken. And runs the very real risk of returning to the failures of previous policy efforts.

For the sake of TWoA students of today and of the future, we can only hope that wild things have been tamed and as the Auditor-General sails in and out of weeks and almost over a day until he releases his findings in relation to various individuals who may or may not have made mischief of one kind or another, and that when Te Wananga finally reaches the night of its very own room, it will find its supper waiting for it, and it will still be hot.


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