The New Zealand government could face a bill of more than NZ$60 million (Pounds 20 million) following a tribunal ruling that the Crown breached New Zealand's founding treaty by underfunding three state Maori colleges.
The decision, reached at the end of last month, followed pressure from the financially stretched institutions, known as wananga, for an urgent hearing of their claim for equitable capital funding with polytechnics and universities.
The wananga, which offer diplomas and degrees built on Maori language and knowledge, claimed their underfunding breached the 1840 treaty of Waitangi, which established the partnership between Maori and the Crown.
The tribunal found in the wananga's favour and recommended a one-off capital payment to each wananga to compensate them for volunteer lecturer time and money invested in the institutions to allow them to operate to date. It recommends the payment should also meet the cost of bringing the institutions up to a comparable standard with other state institutions, to meet existing and anticipated wananga enrolments over the next three years.
No sum was set by the tribunal. The lawyer for the claimants was reluctant to name a figure but believed NZ$20 million for each wananga was probably a conservative estimate. Whatarangi Winiata, head of the Otaki-based Te Wananga o Raukawa, said he estimated meeting Raukawa's future capital requirements would cost NZ$25 million on top of the NZ$2 million in outstanding salaries forgone by volunteer lecturers.
In a joint statement Maori affairs minister Tau Henare and tertiary education minister Max Bradford said they welcomed the report and promised its contents would be carefully analysed to ensure justice was served.
Rongo Wetere, head of the Te Awamutu-based Te Wananga o Aotearoa, said the three wananga always knew they had a strong case and hoped the Crown would now address the issue. "We are all under financial stress but it's not only a matter of survival. It is also a matter of doing a job and trying to address the problem of inadequate Maori participation in tertiary education."
Aotearoa was "busting at the seams" with the removal of the funding cap leading to an estimated 80 per cent growth in student numbers this year with a possible 1,000 full-time equivalent students by the end of the year.
Professor Winiata said the Raukawa roll was projected to grow to 1,500 full-time students by 2003 and had grown by about 20 per cent this year. The institution had been forced to use a marquee as student accommodation.
He said the tribunal report accepted the difficulties under which wananga had been operating and the unwillingness of the Crown to see the inequity in their policies. "Now the concern is about how to get the partner (the Crown) to enter into the spirit of those recommendations," Professor Winiata said.
The tribunal report concluded that the Aotearoa and Raukawa wananga, established in 1993, along with the Whakatane-based Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi, set up four years later, were disadvantaged by government policy that had put their operations at risk.
It said that the wananga were the only tertiary institutions established since 1990, when the Education Amendment Act abolished capital establishment grants and the wananga had not received any capital establishment assistance.
"Wananga now lack a stable capital base from which to deliver their education services. The evidence clearly shows that this has served to compromise both their financial viability and their integrity as a significant Maori educational initiative."