In defence of student spaces for Māori and Pasifika 

Māori and Pasifika students have a right to their own spaces on university campuses. Campuses can be isolating places at the best of times. This is even more true for Māori and Pasifika students, who have to deal not only with being in the minority on university campuses, but also with a university environment that is often alienating or outright hostile to them. Cultural spaces help Māori and Pasifika students to find each other, to share experiences, and to support each other. They create a space on campus where students can create community and feel connected to their cultures. They have often been hard-won, through student organising and campaigning. Far from being “divisive,” these spaces make university campuses more human and more welcoming, in a way that all students benefit from.

While all forms of student space are important, spaces for Māori students are particularly significant. In this case, it is not just a question of Māori students benefiting from cultural spaces as members of a minority group, but of them having a right to these spaces as Tangata Whenua. It is particularly insulting to suggest that it is asking too much for Māori students to have their own spaces within campuses that are operating on Māori land. Questioning this right is part of a broader project on the part of the government and right-wing political actors to deny the status of Māori as indigenous people, or rather to deny the entire concept of indigenous rights.

The bigoted politicians who have joined the attacks on these spaces are using rhetoric ripped directly from the playbook of culture war fearmongers in the USA. In the US, a decades-long moral panic targeting the left, and university students in particular, has had some success in painting these targets as censorious, hypersensitive and anti-democratic. Whether the language used is that of “political correctness,” “cancel culture” or “identity politics,” this strategy has proven effective in whipping up the fears and resentments of old, middle class voters and attracting them to right wing parties’ reactionary political projects. It has also had success inflaming a sense of grievance among right-wing students and professors when they find themselves in the political or intellectual minority on social justice questions.

Equating student cultural spaces with the Ku Klux Klan may seem like an idea so stupid that only Winston Peters could have cooked it up, but in fact almost identical to comparisons have been made by prominent right-wingers in the USA. For example, similar comparisons are made in the influential book The Identity Trap (2023) by Yascha Mounk, with practices such as affinity groups for students likened to Jim Crow era segregation. Absurd as such rhetoric may seem, it is currently being used in real political and legal attacks. In June of last year racist lobby groups took a case to the Supreme Court and successfully had affirmative action in university enrolments declared discriminatory and unconstitutional under the “equal protection” clause of the US constitution, the very clause that was intended to enhance the rights of Black Americans and other racial minorities.

The US example provides a chilling insight into what may be in store for us in Aotearoa as our right-wing politicians increasingly lean into this culture war garbage, and turn their attention to university campuses. In both the USA and New Zealand, politicians and right-wing pundits are warping the truth in some very specific ways. They are painting people with relatively little power in society as having too much power, and they are using fictional “threats to democracy” to justify real attacks on democratic rights. In case it needs to be said, university students do not wield huge power in their day to day lives, compared with university administrations, right-wing politicians, or the older and more well-off people wringing their hands about political correctness. This is even more true for Māori students, Pasifika students and students from other minority groups. We need to be clear that attacks on student cultural spaces, and on other initiatives such as Māori and Pasifika enrolment schemes, are profoundly undemocratic, and would further entrench these power imbalances. We should also point out that these attacks on campuses are a microcosm of what the government is doing to New Zealand society as a whole: painting minority groups, and especially Māori, as a threat to democracy, and meanwhile attacking democratic rights through things like the draconian new “tough on crime” policies and the ban on Te Reo Māori in public service.

Another reason to defend Māori and Pasifika spaces is that, on campuses across the country, these are among the few student spaces we have left. For years universities have been slowly eroding student space and transforming campuses into alienating corporate hellscapes. Student association buildings in particular have been targets for annexation by the university. This erosion of student-run spaces on university campuses mirrors the gradual erosion of student democracy in recent decades, particularly since the introduction of Voluntary Student Unionism. VSU meant that student associations were compelled to get their funding through the universities, meaning that both their resources and their independence were curtailed. While this situation is dire, it is worth remembering that many Māori and Pasifika student associations receive little to no funding.

Defending spaces for Māori and Pasifika students, then, is an important part of the wider fight against racism, and for student democracy. A survey of the state of student space on campuses should act as a reminder that before this racist attack, universities themselves have been quite happy to chip away at the things which make student life vibrant, meaningful, or even just bearable and sustainable for students from all cultural backgrounds. While students and leftists are not the censorious threat to democracy that we are painted as by the right, we can sometimes be tempted (from a place of weakness, not power) to reach out to institutions like university administrations to protect us. There are demands that we can and should put on university administrations (such as speaking out against these attacks on student cultural spaces), but we should also keep in mind that these are the same administrations that have been happily hacking away at staff, courses and services without regard for the impact on students. What they care about at the end of the day is money. Building real student power is key to defending student rights in the long term. We should look to the recent student fightback against cuts, and to the vital role that students are playing in the movements for Palestine, indigenous rights and climate justice, as examples of the fact that while students are often disempowered on campuses and in wider society, we have immense potential power if we act collectively.