Spectacular growth by a Maori higher education institution may be dramatically reversed as a result of a New Zealand government initiative to control the rise in student numbers.
Under a plan announced this month by Steve Maharey, the associate minister responsible for tertiary education, growth in student numbers will be limited from 2004. Institutions will be able to increase enrolments by 15 per cent a year or 1,000 full-time student equivalents, whichever is greater.
But Te Whare Wananga o Aotearoa, one of the three wananga or public tertiary institutions that provide education in a Maori environment, could be forced to cut more than 7,000 full-time-equivalent students and lay off staff.
The speed with which Aotearoa has grown appears to have taken the government by surprise. Most institutions will come well below the new threshold but Aotearoa has had massive growth since 2001, when it had 6,118 full-time-equivalent students and took 55 per cent of the rise in participation in tertiary education by Maori.
In 2002, Aotearoa grew to enrol 20,768 students; this year it expects more than 34,000 and has employed about 2,000 staff. It is a national organisation based in Te Awamutu, 30km south of Hamilton city, with campuses and satellite centres countrywide.
Mr Maharey said the wananga was meeting the government goal of increasing Maori participation in tertiary education. There were no concerns about course quality, but growth needed to centre on meeting government targets.
"We need a balanced portfolio in terms of education rather than growth being concentrated in one particular area," he said.
The wananga 's programmes focus on entry-level courses such as an employment-skills certificate and basic computing skills, as well as Maori language. There are some diploma and degree courses, and agreements with universities and polytechnics to allow students to progress to further study.
Chief executive Rongo Wetere said two-thirds of his students had no school qualifications. "We have more enrolments than we expected, but that is not surprising given the situation in New Zealand, where institutions have focused on international students rather than the domestic market.
"Our target market has been where the government indicated it wanted growth. I hope it's not saying as a result it's got too much growth. We're dealing with a market that hasn't been well served in New Zealand," he said.
Mr Wetere said that if Aotearoa were forced to comply with the funding cap, it would result in redundancies and a significant reduction in student numbers.