Opinion: Turning the tide for our Pacific learners

Friday 7 July 2023

By Professor Giselle Byrnes and Professor Palatasa Havea

Since the beginning of 2021, principally through the university’s wider student success initiative, Massey has invested a huge sum into Pacific student initiatives. Photo credit: Mark Tantrum.

Last updated: Friday 7 July 2023

It is rare in our country that universities make headlines. We tend to take our universities for granted and assume they will always be there, immune from the economic volatility experienced by the rest of us. The past few weeks have proven otherwise with extensive media interest in the financial challenges faced by our country’s higher education institutions, along with the government’s so-called ‘rescue package’ for tertiary providers. This was followed by last week’s announcement that all New Zealand universities have risen in the 2024 Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings, showing that despite funding shortfalls, we ‘punch above our weight’. Today, data on student success at universities is publicly released and this also reveals some hugely positive trends – especially for our university and in regard to Pacific student success outcomes.

All universities must report against government targets designed to improve student success. There are four of these non-negotiable measures: course completion, first year retention, student progression and qualification completion. The latest data shows Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa Massey University has made significant progress on successful course completion in comparison with the rest of the sector, and that we are very close to ‘closing the gap’ between Pacific students and all students at the sector level. This is excellent news for Massey and for Pacific learners.

To detail this further, if the data released today were a ‘rankings exercise’, then Massey is first in New Zealand for on-campus teaching with a successful course completion rate of 89.2 per cent, and the only university to improve performance between 2021 and 2022. Massey is also first in New Zealand for Pacific on-campus delivery with a successful course completion of 78.9 per cent, a massive improvement of 9.4 per cent compared to 2021 and the only university to improve. Not so long ago, in 2021, Massey was last with a successful course completion of 69.5 per cent.

In terms of overall delivery for Pacific students, Massey’s performance has also gone above the average university performance of 68.2 per cent for the first time, rising by 1.3 per cent. Qualification completion has generally improved across the sector and while the overall sector qualification completion is up at a modest 0.7 per cent, for Massey it has increased by 3.1 per cent. For Pacific learners in terms of qualification completion, Massey is up by 3.9 per cent.

These improvements are even more considerable when seen in the context of our university’s learner profile. While Massey has always been proudly committed to supporting equity and access alongside excellence, this has not always been well understood. Massey has a distinctive student cohort and a much more diverse student body when compared with other New Zealand universities, with many more mature age students. In 2022, 59 per cent of all Massey’s students were aged 25 and over, compared to 36 per cent for the national university sector average. In 2022, almost 6 out of 10 domestic students were part-time (56 per cent of Massey’s students are part-time, compared to 33 per cent for the university sector average), and domestic distance students predominate numerically (66 per cent of Massey’s students study by distance, compared with 21 per cent for the national university sector average). Notably, 70 per cent of Pacific students at Massey study the majority or all their courses via distance. Research intensive universities around the world with similar student cohorts to Massey’s tend to have lower student success outcomes than those universities who largely serve school-leavers. This is because, often, ‘life gets in the way’.

What sits behind these latest success outcomes? Since 2020, we’ve overhauled our internal support for Pacific students. Understanding the challenges Pacific students face when accessing and navigating university study has been a huge focus for us over the past three years. Our Office of Pacific Student Success now offers wraparound support for Pacific learners through an integrated culturally safe approach. This has involved building strong relationships with communities inside and outside the university. The recent Cycle 6 Academic Audit report commended Massey on this work which has enabled us to accelerate our work and reinforce a sense of shared responsibility for Pacific student success.

Put simply, we are no longer prepared to accept the lower success outcomes historically experienced by Pacific learners and turned the question onto ourselves; what could we do as a university to lift success outcomes without diluting academic rigor and standards? The key to this is understanding who our students are, why they come to study with us and how we can reduce historic and systemic barriers. Since the beginning of 2021, principally through the university’s wider student success initiative, Massey has invested a huge sum into Pacific student initiatives. We are now seeing the results of this investment.

We are immensely proud of our Pacific students at Massey, and of our Pacific staff, noting we now have fourteen Associate Professor and Professor positions held by Pacific staff, one of whom has just been awarded a Fulbright Scholar Award.

What this says is that despite the financial challenges that universities are facing, we are doing extraordinarily well to ‘turn the tide’ for Pacific learners. Drawing on Massey’s longstanding commitment to supporting a broad and diverse student cohort, we believe that success really matters – for our students and the communities we both serve.

Professor Giselle Byrnes, Provost & Professor Palatasa Havea, Dean Pacific, Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa Massey University.

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