TEU National Secretary Sandra Grey discusses the challenge of racism in the tertiary education sector.

They’ve become known as the Waikato Six. Six scholars, who have raised publicly concerns about structural, institutional, and casual racism at Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato | University of Waikato. And last Friday afternoon I was humbled to meet them.

These six are courageous academics. There are concerns not just from the Waikato Six but from staff and students across Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato, across Aotearoa, and across the world in fact that their courage will cost them their jobs, livelihoods, and maybe even their careers.

I’ve only really experienced this type of fear once before in Aotearoa. It’s something I only expect to read about from countries with oppressive political regimes. I experienced it when I met union members who worked for a punitive private company in a car park to discuss their rights.

I expect the TEU members, staff and leaders to be able to work in union on campuses and meet those who need our support - awhi atu, awhi mai.  

I expect this because of the way Aotearoa employment law should work. I also expect free debate on campuses because these are places where academic freedom and the critic and conscience function is supposed to flourish, to be honoured, to be encouraged.

No one should be fearful of calling out racism, of challenging the biases that exist in our tertiary education sector.

There is no doubt racism is endemic in our education system at all levels.  

I’ve seen many ways in which institutional, structural, and casual racism come into play (oh and sexism, homophobia, ableism, and much more).

In my department at Te Herenga Waka | Victoria University of Wellington the team always spoke of the ‘bright young men’ who were the hope of our disciplines (never the old women or Māori); in hiring new staff, ‘bright young men’ from overseas always won out over the Māori woman or Pasifika scholar because they ‘fit in’ better; and, when a Māori student used analogies and metaphor in a social science essay my colleagues question whether this is sound scholarship - so much for understanding that there are many ways of constructing knowledge and drawing from your culture when researching and writing.

Too many Māori are hired on casual or fixed-term agreements; too many Māori are denied promotions because they don’t fit the western scholarly mode; too many Māori students are denied access to and drop out from our tertiary education sector.  These are all symptoms and outcomes of systemic racism.

It is real – racism that is. It is deeply felt. So, when six academics feel there is no other way to raise their concerns than use whistleblowing protections and have to meet their union representatives off campus, there is something deeply wrong.

We need to be braver than this - Pākehā that is.

They need to bemore open to change – university managers that is.

And the Waikato Six deserve better – not just for them but for all working and studying at Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato and across the education system.

No more fear. The Waikato Six are looking to disrupt their current realities and change the world for all our sakes. They have 10,000 TEU members standing alongside them in this endeavour. Now all we need is the will from institutional leaders to work with us all to change the system, the rules, the way we behave on a daily basis.

Tū kotahi, tū kaha - tātou, tātou e.