Doctoral theses in Māori: Advice for universities

Georgina Stewart

Introduction – writing in te reo Māori at university

Standard university policies in Aotearoa-New Zealand allow for any essay or dissertation to be submitted in te reo Māori as an official language, given suitable assessment arrangements are made. Alongside other equity developments in tertiary education for Māori, such as university marae, Wānanga, and immersion-Māori teaching degree programmes, this language policy aims to support national aspirations for our first language as well as Māori aspirations for higher education and research. Implementation of this policy has been variable across the country, however, and little has been achieved in building a knowledge base about undertaking academic teaching, learning and research in te reo Māori. Māori-medium doctoral students and their supervisors are disadvantaged by this lack of knowledge and associated ad-hoc provision for Māori-medium scholarship. I undertook research into doctoral theses written in te reo Māori to begin building this knowledge base.

This topic has implications that are both practical and theoretical, given the fundamental differences between Māori and Western knowledge bases. What is gained and risked by normalizing Māori-medium scholarship? Doctoral theses written in Māori make a useful focusing lens on this wider topic. Doctoral degrees are core business for universities and one of their distinctive characteristics. There are nine doctoral degree-granting institutions in Aotearoa-New Zealand: the eight universities plus Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi; but for technical reasons this study includes only the eight universities, five of which have awarded doctoral degrees for theses written and defended in te reo Māori: AUT, Massey, Otago, Victoria and Waikato.

Massey University has been the most successful due to the crucial contribution of key individuals, especially Emeritus Professor Sir Mason Durie (2017) and Professor Taiarahia Black (2009). In the late 1990s Durie and Black worked together as supervisor and student to produce the first ever reo Māori doctoral thesis. They were well supported by their university but have both since departed from the University.

The importance of built spaces to Māori cultural expression is easy to overlook in the post-digital age: a Māori space or marae within a university is best as a living centre of practice, not merely a formal edifice. In Palmerston North, Massey University houses Māori Studies academics together with those in Māori Education and Māori Art in their own space on campus, which helps for developing a critical mass of Māori scholars and richer contexts for practice.


What I did

I used online records and correspondence with librarians to compile the list, below, of all doctoral theses written in te reo Māori. I downloaded 17 of these full-text theses and followed these to the graduate authors, as well as supervisors, examiners and others involved. I completed 18 individual, face-to-face conversational interviews, each 30 – 60 minutes long. I analysed the interview data according to one of four perspectives: Graduate (10), Supervisor (10), Examiner (9) and Dean or senior university manager (8), with some interviewees counting in 2, 3, or 4 of these categories. Given the small size of the sector this amount of empirical data provides a reliable national picture.


List of te reo Māori doctoral theses

1 2000 Taiarahia Black Massey
2 2001 Ian Christensen* Massey
3 2004 Lachlan Paterson* Otago
4 2005 Poia Rewi Otago
5 2008 Darryn James Joseph Massey
6 2009 Wayne James Ngata Massey
7 2010 Dean Mahuta AUT
8 2011 Korohere Ngāpo Waikato
9 2012 Wahineata Smith AUT
10 2013 Joseph Te Pōroa Malcolm Massey
11 2013 Jennifer Martin AUT
12 2013 Delyn M. Day Otago
13 2014 Petina Bray Winiata Massey
14 2014 Valance Smith AUT
15 2015 Agnes Jean McFarland Massey
16 2015 Hinurewa Ngāmuringa Poutū Massey
17 2015 Gianna Margurite Arinia Leoni Otago
18 2017 Vincent Olsen-Reeder Victoria
19 2018 Ēnoka Murphy Waikato

* These theses are presented in two versions, English and Māori.


Current status of Māori-medium doctoral degrees

All the doctoral degrees in te reo so far have been on topics embedded in Māori culture, history, language, identity and/or education. This makes sense; emergence of te reo Māori doctoral research and scholarship can be expected as a theorisation of existing areas of Māori-medium practice (G. H. Smith, 2003). For example, Kōhanga Reo and Kura Kaupapa Māori are Māori-medium forms of early childhood and school education. These forms of education have brought Māori-medium practice into the university in Education, where Kaupapa Māori theory and research methodologies have transformed Māori education (L. T. Smith, 2012). Hence Māori Education has become the second ‘home’ of te reo in the university, in addition to its tūrangawaewae or natural home of Māori Studies.

Each completion of a doctoral thesis written and defended in te reo Māori attracts four times the standard research degree completion funding, but this money is paid in instalments up to four years after the degree is completed, and institutions are not seeing it as an incentive for investing in pre-doctoral Māori students, or providing extra support while doctoral students are studying in te reo. As well as the difficulty of aligning the right student with suitable supervisors and administration systems, a university faces an extra ‘break through’ barrier at each step from enrolment to examination, for their first doctoral completion in te reo Māori. When there is significant staff turnover at multiple levels of a university, the ‘break through’ barrier may arise anew, and need to be overcome once again.

Doctoral students who choose to write in te reo Māori are often motivated by reasons intrinsic to the language itself, which is central in Māori identity and cultural traditions. Such decisions blur the boundary between politics, described as ‘indigenising the academy’, and epistemology, aligning the language medium with the central ideas of the topic. Graduates described writing a doctoral thesis in te reo as a labour of love, motivated by a passion for learning and revitalising the language, and an aim to contribute towards reo Māori scholarship.


Future developments

All the doctoral research written in te reo has been in Māori Studies or Māori Education, on topics embedded in areas of contemporary Māori-medium practice: Māori culture, history, language, identity and education. Doctoral theses written in te reo Māori are likely to appear in coming years in other fields where a Māori practice has begun, such as architecture, the arts, environmental science, health sciences, literature, media studies and psychology. Future Māori-medium scholarship is likely to arise in the human and social sciences, not chemistry or physics-based disciplines.

Academics involved in supporting doctoral theses written in te reo Māori are willing to collaborate across institutions to support the growth of reo Māori doctoral studies. Experiences and processes that have been found to work at some sites can be shared with others, and national coordination would be beneficial for all. Universities cannot control future decisions to be made by students about writing doctoral theses in te reo, but can and should be pro-active in developing policies and processes to support future initiatives in this area. The most important steps a university can take are ensuring they have doctoral systems in place that can be flexible, while upholding academic standards, and are underpinned by a welcoming attitude towards Māori language and culture.





Black, T. (2000). Kāore te aroha… Te hua o te wānanga. (PhD), Massey University, Palmerston North, N.Z.

Black, T. (Producer). (2009). Writing a thesis in te reo Māori. [Podcast] Retrieved from

Durie, M. H. (2017). Kaupapa Māori: Indigenising New Zealand. In T. K. Hoskins & A. Jones (Eds.), Critical conversations in Kaupapa Māori (pp. 13-20). Wellington, N.Z.: Huia.

Smith, G. H. (2003). Kaupapa Māori theory: theorizing indigenous transformation of education and schooling. Paper presented at the AARE/NZARE, Auckland, New Zealand.

Smith, L. T. (2012). Decolonizing methodologies: Research & indigenous peoples (2nd ed.). London & Dunedin: Zed Books.

Stewart, G. (2018). Writing in te reo at university. Kōtuitui: New Zealand Journal of Social Sciences Online. doi:10.1080/1177083X.2017.1418399

Georgina Stewart
About the author

Georgina Stewart

Georgina Stewart (ko Whakarārā te maunga, ko Matauri te moana, ko Te Tāpui te marae, ko Ngāti Kura te hapū, ko Ngāpuhi-nui-tonu te iwi) is Associate Professor in Te Kura Mātauranga School of Education, Auckland University of Technology. In 2014, Georgina won a Marsden research grant to investigate academic writing in Māori, a project she is currently completing, and on which this briefing paper is based. Georgina is a former secondary teacher of Science, Mathematics and Te Reo Māori, and completed her doctorate on the Māori science curriculum in 2007. She worked for six years at the Tai Tokerau campus of the University of Auckland in Whangarei before joining AUT in July 2016.