Vice-Chancellor of the University of Auckland, Professor Stuart McCutcheon is wrong to refer to Pasifika students as “disadvantaged” when talking about their educational achievement.

Speaking to Radio New Zealand about disparities between Māori and Pasifika and other New Zealand learners, McCutcheon said “a lot of the disadvantage that Māori and Pasifika students experience is in the compulsory sector.”

Responding to McCutcheon’s comments, Dr Cherie Chu pointed out in an article on Newsroom that labelling Pasifika as “disadvantaged” portrays these students in a negative light.Educational achievement for Pasifika is commonly framed in terms of underachievement.

This approach is unhelpful and constrains discussion about what is need to ensure Pasifika students can participate fully and achieve fully as Pasifika.

Ako Aotearoa said in a report published in 2013 that taking a more positive approach to understanding Pasifika educational achievement would provide newer insights, learning, practices and outcomes for staff, students and institutions.

We all have a responsibility for helping to change the public’s negative perception of what Pasifika learners need in order to achieve, and McCutcheon’s comments are unhelpful in this regard.

Not least because he was effectively defining current levels of Pasifika achievement in education as a problem without making any attempt to understand the underlying reason for the gap between Māori and Pasifika learners’ achievement rates and other New Zealanders.

Nor did McCutcheon’s comments allow the appropriate space to consider what is currently not working for Pasifika learners.McCutcheon needs to understand that reinforcing pervasive narratives can actually become mechanisms of control. His language is not neutral; there lies significant power in terms such as ‘disadvantage’.

Indeed, such language can set the boundaries within which we think and act. Categories such as “disadvantaged” can become pervasive enough to shape the types of studies, interventions and policies adopted.

At a time when Associate Education Minister Jenny Salesa is speaking to Pasifika communities about what they want from our education system, we need to be encouraging conversations about what works well for Pasifika learners – not lazily repeating tropes that portray groups of learners in a negative light.

As Chu points out, the Vice-Chancellor was also wrong to pass the buck for Pasifika educational achievement to the compulsory sector. Tertiary education institutions also have a huge amount of work to do to ensure Pasifika students achieve at the same rates as others. To suggest this is a problem to be fixed in schooling alone is not helpful.

The Tertiary Education Commission is telling institutions to improve results for their Māori and Pasifika students or lose their funding.

The Tertiary Education Union has written to the Associate Minister asking that she meet with a delegation of Pasifika staff to discuss what it is like to study and work as Pasifika in our public tertiary education system.