Cross-Examination: ‘I Too, Deserve an Education’ – UTAS and Affirmative Action in Tertiary Education


Recently, there have been debates regarding alternative schemes that help minority groups in universities throughout New Zealand.[1] The main issue is whether these alternative programs — such as the Undergraduate Targeted Admission Scheme (UTAS) — reflect or breach affirmative action.[2] Does providing extra assistance to those less fortunate reflect equality or equity or both? Or do these schemes actually go too far, and in fact privilege the minority?

‘I, Too, Am Auckland’

I, Too, Am Auckland is a student-based initiative at the University of Auckland which explores the experiences and perspectives of Maori and Pacifica students across a variety of academic disciplines, discussing their experiences with everyday colonialism and racism.

The I, Too, Am Auckland campaign highlights the pros and cons of the UTAS. The UTAS exists in order to improve access to higher education for equity groups as well as to provide equal education opportunities to all Maori and Pacifica students and students from other UTAS groups (students with disabilities, low-socioeconomic and refugee backgrounds) who have the potential to participate and succeed in a university of high international standing.[3] Alternative pathway programmes such as the UTAS reflect positive discrimination, meaning that they aim to help disadvantaged groups to achieve the same outcomes as the majority in order to produce more equitable results.

Why is there a gap in the first place?

Research shows Maori students generally perform less well at school than non-Maori.[4] Statistics also indicate that Maori and Pacifica students are disadvantaged in primary and secondary education. The main reason stems from the background of parents, with Maori parents generally having less money and less education than non-Maori parents. Therefore the gap arguably begins at birth. For example, the employment rate of Maori and Pacifica groups are 59% and 56% respectively, whereas 67.3% of New Zealand Europeans are employed.[5] The average percentage of Maori and Pacifica groups leaving secondary education with NCEA Level 2 (which allows access to many non-University tertiary and further education courses) or above are 63.4% and 71.5% respectively, compared to the European percentage of 83.6%.[6] This suggests that, despite the three Treaty of Waitangi principles of partnership, participation and protection, social inequality hampers the access to higher education for Maori and Pacific Islanders.[7] This is reflected in Maori and Pacific Islanders’ poor performance in a number of indicators of inequality such as health, knowledge and skills, paid work, economic standard of living and social connectedness.[8] A particularly illustrative example is the income levels of different ethnic groups in New Zealand. Maori earn on average $629 per week whereas non-Maori earn $802 on average per week.[9] This, amongst other factors, sums up an environment where Maori and Pacifica students struggle to succeed.

It is evident that Maori and Pacific Islanders face inequalities in education.[10] Hence, in order to increase equity in education and narrow the gap, a variety of measures has been taken. These programs all try to close the gap in educational opportunities produced by these social inequalities. However, some believe that UTAS schemes are in effect ‘giving more’ to Maori and Pacifica students, which is discriminatory against other students who have worked hard and entered through the ‘normal’ way. In short, the counterargument believes that alternative schemes are unnecessary.

Why are alternative schemes necessary?

One straightforward answer as to why these schemes are necessary, despite this alleged ‘favoritism, is that the Treaty of Waitangi says so.[11] The principles of the treaty outlines that there is a clear obligation on the Crown to provide access to education for Maori people, as education is one of the most fundamental vehicles to achieve improvement and development of Maori.[12] Hence, it seems rational that universities should adopt affirmative action policies to counteract the imbalanced starting point of the minorities.

But we come back to this question: is it fair that Maori and Pacific Island students are getting alternative treatments because of their racial background? Schemes such as UTAS may seem unfair on the surface because they give an advantage to Maori and Pacifica over other groups. This claim can be easily accepted if it was assumed that all ethnic groups were equal, with equal rights, resources, opportunities, social status, and economic backgrounds. However, many social statistics suggest that Maori and Pacific Islanders are worse off in areas such as education, health and interaction with the criminal justice system.[13]

According to the Treaty of Waitangi, our government has a responsibility to correct these inequalities for Maori. Specifically, the s 181 of the Education Act 1989 places various duties on the Council of universities, one of which is “a duty to acknowledge the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi”.[14] The existence of these schemes indicates that universities acknowledge that inequalities do exist, and they are endeavoring to restore equality through equitable methods.

Equity vs Equality – is it fair? 

The concept of equity and equality are sometimes used interchangeably. However, schemes such as the UTAS program demonstrate how, in some circumstances, these apparently similar terms can call for very different outcomes.

For example, in a system based on ‘equality’, wealthy and high-performing Pakeha students receive the same amount of resources as the minority, low-income and special-needs students. On the other hand, in a system based on ‘equity’, minority, low-income and special-needs students might receive relatively more resources in an attempt to compensate for and overcome preexisting flaws that might place them at an educational disadvantage. For some, the equal distribution of resources may seem equitable since it is fair and just. However, others may view equal resource allocation as inequitable because it fails to consider the preexisting inequities in society that may have disadvantaged students in an educational or aspirational manner — such as racial discrimination or income inequality.[15]

The UTAS program is not trying to advantage Maori and Pacifica students over other groups. As noted by University of Auckland law school senior lecturer Khylee Quince, these schemes should be seen as “restorative justice, not affirmative action”.[16] It is not about privileging the minority; it is about letting people get their foot in the door, and bringing students up to the level playing field. It must be emphasized that just because a student comes in with slightly lower grades, it certainly does not mean that they will come out less competent.

Perhaps a better way to put it would be this: equity is the process and equality is the outcome. We cannot all be equal if we are not brought up to the same playing field.

[1] Russell Brown “The crybaby philosopher” (31 July 2014) Public Address .

[2] Brown; Chanelle Cattin “Affirmative Action: A Legitimate Concept?” (LLB (Hons) Dissertation, University of Auckland, 2013).

[3] The University of Auckland “UTAS: Undergraduate Targeted Admission Schemes” <>.

[4] Statistics New Zealand “Employment” <>.

[5] Statistics New Zealand “18-year olds with higher qualifications” <>.

[6] Ministry of Education “The New Zealand Curriculum Treaty of Waitangi Principle” (16 January 2012) .

[7] Anne Else “Maori Participation and Performance in Education: A Literature Review and Research Programme” (May 1997) Education Counts <>.

[8] Lisa Marriott and Dalice Sim “Indicators of inequality and Pacific People” (August 2014) Victoria University of Wellington <>.

[9] Statistics New Zealand “Income for all people by Maori, Non-Maori, region, and broad age groups” <>.

[10] I, Too, Am Auckland “I, Too Am Auckland; TAS/Tuakana” YouTube .

[11] Ministry of Justice “The Wananga Capital Establishment Report” (1999) Waitangi Tribunal <>.

[12] At 9–10.

[13] Marriott Dalice Sim, above n 2; Maori make up 51% of the total prison population, compared to the 33% of Europeans: Statistics New Zealand “New Zealand’s prison population” < >.

[14] Cattin, above n 2, at 14.

[15] Marriott and Sim, above n 12.

[16] I, Too, Am Auckland, above n 10.

The views expressed in the posts and comments of this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Equal Justice Project. They should be understood as the personal opinions of the author. No information on this blog will be understood as official. The Equal Justice Project makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or found by following any link on this site. The Equal Justice Project will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information nor for the availability of this information.

Comments 3

  1. Tom

    While I think affirmative action (or restorative justice) is a positive thing- I have a few issues with your analysis. You say that “in a system based on ‘equity’, minority, low-income and special-needs students might receive relatively more resources in an attempt to compensate for and overcome preexisting flaws that might place them at an educational disadvantage”.
    On this basis then why does the system only help Maori and Pacific Islanders- many refugees from war torn countries equally struggle for financial and other reasons as do other New Zealanders of all racial back grounds. Why not give affirmative action to all law and medical students from low-income backgrounds whether they are Maori, Pakeha, Indian or Asian?
    I would suggest that Pakeha, Asians and Indians are disadvantaged just as much educationally by being in a low decile school as Maori and Pacific Islanders. Moreover, it seems likely that most of the social problems associated with poverty will impact on all of these racial groups fairly equally. Why give help to only two particular racial groups? Shouldn’t affirmative action be based on the level of poverty not race? This is especially true when you consider that some Maori and Pacific Islanders may have had an excellent secondary school education (at schools such as Auckland Grammar or Kings) and come from rich back grounds but they nonetheless are allowed to make use of the quota system even though their education has not been negatively impacted. Personally I would prefer affirmative educational action for all NZers from low socio-economic groups so that we don’t leave behind any poverty stricken NZers.
    Furthermore it seems disingenuous to suggest that the Treaty of Waitangi is the source of the affirmative action given Pacific Islanders were not a party to the Treaty.

    1. The Equal Justice Project

      Hi Tom, thanks so much for your comment. You raise some really good points!

      I would like to point out, targeted admission schemes aren’t solely for students from Maori or Pacific Island backgrounds. In fact, schemes already are in place for students from refugee backgrounds, students with disabilities, and some students from lower socio-economic backgrounds:

      Indeed, there are even targeted admissions schemes in place for students from rural backgrounds in areas of need such as medicine where there are workforce shortages:

      We did restrict the scope of the article to UTAS aimed at students from Maori or Pacific Island backgrounds because these are the schemes which most often attract controversy.

      As for Maori or Pacific Island students who may have had access to education from schools like Kings or Auckland Grammar, I don’t have the data on how many of those students actually make up those who are admitted under UTAS so I can’t comment on that. My personal intuition is that a comparatively smaller minority of students would fall under that category, but like I said I don’t have the data for that and I would be happy to be corrected with any data to the contrary.

      As for your final point on the Treaty being the source of affirmative action for Pacific Island students, that is our mistake – we meant to say that the Treaty is another source for affirmative action for Maori students, on top of the other justifications for the scheme, but we did not intend to imply that it is also a justification for the scheme being available to Pacific Island students. We apologise for the lack of clarity on that point.

      Thanks again for your comment!

      Jason (Communications Co-Manager)

      Disclaimer: just as with the opinions expressed in the article, the opinions expressed in this comment are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Equal Justice Project.

  2. Melissa

    While your article is about the Undergraduate Targeted Admission Scheme (UTAS) which is a programme to help disadvantaged groups receive admission to the University of Auckland, your focus is solely on the racial eligibility, while there are many other points of entitlement that need to be considered.

    Affirmative Action policies by definition, are intended to help with the disadvantages suffered by a particular group due to “some social injustice, such as years of having employment opportunities restricted”. (Open Polytechnic, 2015 Module 3). By your article, you seem to try to support this definition with what you believe to be the injustices suffered by Maori/Pacific Island students in regards to education and also in employment. For this reason, you believe there is a major gap between these students and Non-Maori/Pasifika students and alternative schemes are necessary especially in education.

    With your comment; “Maori and Pacifica students are disadvantaged in primary and secondary education. The main reason stems from the background of parents, with Maori parents generally having less money and less education than non-Maori parents”, you are stating that Maori and Pacific Island students have not been given a chance historically and this is why they there are inequalities in employment and wage. I disagree with these claims. The reason being is that it has been well documented that New Zealand policy makers introduced policies of affirmative action many years before other western nations. Positive discrimination actions began as early as 1867 where seats where held for Maori in Parliament along with the establishment of the Department of Maori Affairs in 1953 and the Maori Education Foundation in 1961, which concentrated on the social and educational needs of the Maori people. (Myers & Corrie. 2006, p138). In the 1970’s spaces were set aside for Maori and Pacific Island Students at both Otago & Auckland Universities in Medical School and other schools of profession. (Myers & Corrie. 2006, p138). In the 1980’s, along with more affirmative action policies in regards to tertiary education, there was even more development for employment programmes with the Maori and Pacific Island Recruitment Scheme which helped increase the participation of the groups in public sector service and also help them move up to senior (Myers & Corrie. 2006, p138). By 1996, 22% of the Maori working population were employed in professional, administrative, technical and managerial positions as opposed to the early 1980’s when this was just 2%. (Myers & Corrie. 2006, p139). In light of these historical schemes and improved outcomes, in my view it is careless to state that Maori and Pacific Islanders have not been given opportunities in regards to education and employment.

    Another assertion that you have made; “the counterargument believes that alternative schemes are unnecessary” is essentially stating that people of the opinion who disagree in giving Maori and Pacific Islanders specific advantages to access special places at universities also believe that these schemes are redundant. This is simply not the case, in my view and in many others I believe, certain schemes ARE necessary however it is of the belief that these alternative schemes should be about socio-economic status and school deciles rather than race. To bring equality based on race/ethnicity is the main goal of affirmative action so I believe non-affirmative action schemes founded on the aforesaid criteria would bring a more just solution.

    As mentioned above, there are many other ways in which ALL people would be put on a “level playing field” without going down the race route. There are many Non-Maori/Pasifika students and young people who are from the lower decile schools and socio-economic groups along with those Maori and Pacific Island students you describe above. Your blog also seems to express the notion that only Non-Maori/Pasifika students come from affluent backgrounds which is untrue – so it seems that Maori and Pacific Island students would still be considered for the UTAS on their race alone even if they were from affluent backgrounds which certainly does not put everyone on a level playing field which negates the schemes purpose. Let’s just for the sake of argument and we say that it is a fact that in that Maori and Pacific Island students are unequal to their Non-Maori/Pasifika counterparts in education, income, health etc. in a negative way. If then, applicants were evaluated on their incomes and school deciles instead of their ethic group, then the majority of Maori and Pacific Island students would, with great certainty, still be given the majority of places within these schemes based on this criteria.

    By judging eligibility to UTA’s and other similar schemes based on these criteria, then those that ARE really disadvantaged will succeed in receiving placement. Doing this also removes the race label and the feeling from both sides of the coin, minority races such as Maori and Pacific Islanders on one side and Non-Maori/Pasifika on another, that individuals only receives spaces because of race.
    I recently came across an online article and the author had many strong arguments against affirmative action and these assertions surprisingly were not about how it is detrimental to white people and their achievements but how in fact how it is damaging to the minorities it is intended to benefit. One statement the author made was; “Those accepted to universities under the affirmative action process are faced with an internal conflict, questioning whether they were accepted because of academic achievements, or to fill a racial quota”. (Grutter, B. (2013, October 18). Affirmative Action: Adverse Effects! [Web log post]. Retrieved from Another statement; “This law allows society to portray the concept that people of minority status are unable to strive to their potential without extra help”. (Grutter, B. (2013, October 18). Affirmative Action: Adverse Effects! [Web log post]. Retrieved from
    These statements support my belief that affirmative action policies harm not just Non-Maori/Pasifika students but Maori and Pacific Island students also. To me, there is a much better way of putting people onto a “level playing field” and this is not by defining their learning experience based on race.

    Grutter, B. (2013, October 18). Affirmative Action: Adverse Effects! [Web log post]. Retrieved from

    Myers, Jr., Samuel L. & Corrie, Bruce P. (2006). Racial and Ethnic Economic Inequality: An International Perspective. Retrieved from

    Open Polytechnic of New Zealand. (2015). Module One. 71203 Business ethics. Lower Hutt, NZ:Author.

Leave a Reply