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Dr Pita Sharples Speech

Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia Conference;

Energy Events Centre, Rotorua

Tuesday 1 July 2008; 5.30pm

Engaging Communities

Dr Pita Sharples, Co-leader of the Māori Party

When I was asked to speak at this conference on the focus ofengaging communities in higher and tertiary education, there was one question I forgot to ask.

Is that a verb or an adjective?

It’s not a trick question.

When we think about engaging communities, do we think of those communities as

attractive, pleasing to the eye or mind (as in the adjective);

or do we think of drawing communities in, assuming they want to be involved with us (the verb)?.
Well, after the powhiri this afternoon, there would be no doubt about how impressive Te Arawa always present as a people.  Indeed, one could say the talents and hospitality of Te Arawa are recognised, worldwide, as the very model of an“engaging community”.

Since the late nineteenth century, the leadership of international entrepreneurs, the like of Sophia Hinerangi, Maggie Papakura and her sister Bella, Rangitiaria Dennan and Bubbles Mihinui, has lured visitors to Whakarewarewa.  

The command and knowledge of these legendary tour guide was evident in their mastery of their culture, their history, their stories, extending right across Nga Pumanawa e Waru - the eight beating hearts of the children of the ancestor, Rangitihi.

Te Arawa has managed a formidable tourism portfolio - drawing visitors from right across the globe to admire the sometimes volatile geothermal wonders, and to marvel at the arts and crafts, the cultural performances, the hospitality.

It is no wonder that this place, Rotorua, is branded with the theme, Feel the Spirit, Manaakitanga.

Manaakitanga comprises an invitation, and a responsibility.

In te Ao Māori, a very high value is placed on manaakitanga.   The principle of manaakitanga is represented in all rituals of encounter - such as in the powhiri witnessed this afternoon.  Manaakitanga begins before the manuhiri - the visitors - arrive.

It is seen in ensuring the house is clean, there will be shelter from stormy weather, there is food prepared and the welfare of the visitors planned for.  Manaakitanga is the process of sharing common ground upon which an affinity and respect can grow.  It is a very deep-rooted concept in Maori culture.

I have gone into some depth about the principle of manaakitanga as but one example of the type of understandings we may need to explore if we are genuinely committed to engaging communities - and this time I am using the verb.

The thing is, the verb and the adjective are intimately linked.

If we (and presumably the ‘we’ is the higher education community) are committed to engaging with local, regional and global communities, committed to learning with communities and within communities, and fostering the ongoing development of communities within the workplace then we must both be prepared to learn about key values and principles of the target communities, as well as being prepared to respect their differences.

We must be able to value their unique character, their histories, their world views - as well as respond to the way in which these same qualities will help to determine the consultation process we follow.

For in engaging communities in consultation, it can never be a one way street.

I am very aware that in this conference today, will be members of HERDSA from across Australia, the Pacific and Asia, as well as here in Aotearoa. 

Each of you will have your own stories to tell of the way in which communities of interest have been drawn into the systems and processes of the tertiary sector in your land.

For us in Aotearoa, we have a legislative mandate in section 181 of the Education Act 1989 which requires institutional councils to acknowledge the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi in the performance of its functions and the exercise of its powers.

In its very essence, that mandate requires tertiary education institutions to work within the context of a Treaty partnership - our constitutional framework between the Crown and Tangata whenua -the people of the land, Māori .

The system needs to support Maori aspirations and achievements, including the revitalisation of te reo (our language), nga tikanga (our customs and protocols), nga mātauranga (our knowledge and education)

And yet when the Tertiary Education Reforms Bill came to Parliament last year, there were numerous concerns raised around consultation, specifically that there is no requirement for the Minister, the Tertiary Education Commission or the Tertiary Education Organisations to actually consult with Maori in the development of a Tertiary Education Strategy. 

The Association of University Staff advised us that the Government had received over four hundred submissions related to the omission of the Treaty of Waitangi from theTertiary Education Strategy and the Statement of Tertiary Education Priorities. 

What we were seeing was the difference between a commitment at its most symbolic form in the Education Act, being watered down and diluted at the operational level, by its absence in the strategic priority documents.

It represented the very worst of processes for ‘engaging communities’.

It represented a fundamental lack of insight into the way in which the Māori community valued the Treaty of Waitangi as this country’s constitutional framework.

But significantly it also represented a fundamental lack of insight into the views that other communities throughout the country held on our founding document.

Throughout 2005 and 2006, the State Services Commission conducted some 29 discussion events collecting over 300 submissions on the place on the Treaty in contemporary New Zealand. 

Of these participants, 74% said that the Treaty of Waitangi was important or very important to them; and 78% of participants went further to say that the Treaty was relevant or very relevant to New Zealand today.

So only a Government out of touch with their communities, would then  move to remove the Treaty from key education documents.

I have used this example of recent policy processes in New Zealand as an example of what not to do, when engaging communities.

However, on the other side of the continuum, we know that there are many tertiary education providers who are currently intimately involved in engaging with Māori communities about their ideas and strategies for how to develop:

quality kaupapa Maori programmes;

professional development to ensure effective cultural interaction;

Improved career guidance advice for Maori students;

better focused financial support for Maori students including supporting a living allowance for all students

provision of effective bridging programmes to bring Maori students into these arenas;

a strong research focus on research by and for Maori.

Or howto work in partnership with whanau, hapu, iwi and Maori communities. 
The guiding rule in engaging with any community must be to always be open to the notion of feeling the spirit - manaakitanga.

Are you truly prepared toengage with communities without first having made up your mind about every aspect of the process?

Are you interested in a process of engagement which is not merely telling or presenting but which is done in good faith, and requires listening on your part as well?

Do you want to engage in a charade or an honest dialogue?

Have you allowed sufficient time to be flexible; sufficient information to enable your communities to be well informed; sufficient generosity of spirit to actually enable their views to be heard.

There’s no two ways around it.  Genuinely engaging communities takes both time and commitment.  A mutually trusting relationship can not be formed on the basis of one meeting, one decisions paper.

And importantly, if engaging communities is genuinely desired by all, communities must be empowered to contribute to aspects of the institutional life and planning processes, other than that which you select as worthy of engagement.

We have a whakatauaki, a proverb, which sums up the importance of getting the process right, from day one.

Te kai atihau, he kai totonui.

The food of life is preservation,

seeding that will sustain continuity.

If we nourish and care for the education of our people wisely,

we will preserve a future that we can all be proud of.

Engaging communities takes time, it can be challenging, and it demands great courage and determination in ensuring there are effective communication channels in place for different values to be accorded status.

But if done well, effectively engaging communities will both improve the quality of the plans and policies, but importantly will also lead to greater community buy-in to the plans, and increased ownership.

It requires both sides being open and willing to recognise the gaps they have in their own knowledge about the communities at the heart of the engagement process.

It demands a readiness to learn from each other; to respect and recognise different ways of being and seeing the world.

The education system must continue to show leadership in ensuring all peoples have the opportunity to access free, high quality tertiary education, and to achieve to the highest level of their potential. 

The Māori Party, as the strong and independent Māori voice in Parliament, lives by our mandate to ensure the views of the voiceless are heard, to demand that all people have a say.

We believe it only when the doors are truly open to all, that the tertiary sector can say it has made a front end investment in the future of our nations.


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