Pacific | Matariki

OPINION: Matariki is also a time for education - Professor Damon Salesa

A fire on the beach in Napier as part of Matariki festivities. Photo / Derek Rossiter

This speech was delivered at a Matariki event 2 July by Professor Damon Salesa. He is the vice-chancellor, Auckland University of Technology. Salesa is an interdisciplinary scholar who works on Oceania, especially history, politics and culture, and is a prizewinning author.


Mānawatia a Matariki.

We remember. We celebrate. We plan.

Because education is a process, development, a journey, many of us at AUT, indigenous or otherwise, turn to metaphors of travel, of voyaging and navigation. They are fitting, apt. They are particularly fitting in this moment, as we acknowledge the waters we have traversed this past year.

For the AUT vessel is well in the water: the vaka, va’a, waka is underway. We are navigating our course, and together we are voyaging well.

A rousing haka welcomed the crew of the Te Matau a Māui waka hourua on Wednesday morning. Photo / Warren Buckland

In Pacific traditions of navigation the stars have two broad uses. One use is those that were used at their zenith, above us, telling us how far north or south we were, as a check or measure of what we now call latitude; the other use was as those stars rose or set over the horizon, appearing on the ocean edge, thus, for a brief period, allowing the vessel to be oriented, as marks for steering the course, for setting the direction of the destination. Master navigators knew not just the stars, but the sequence of these stars, their relationships to each other, as they rose in a pattern; and in a sense the vessel would traverse this sequence of stars—the voyaging stars as one put it, or the starpath according to another - on their way forward.

Of course, knowing the stars was the secret to crossing the wide expanse of ocean, but in order to stay alive and get there required a whole universe of technology, culture and society.

Professor Damon Salesa, vice-chancellor, Auckland University of Technology.

So, our ancestors set the course by the stars, which was, in a sense, their strategy; but to enable the journey required a vast array of more detailed tactics and activities, culture, values, knowledge, technology and preparedness. And so it is at AUT.

Last year we placed the first of our big stars in the sky: Te Aronui, AUT’s response to Te Tiriti. Just a few weeks ago it was joined by our new strategy, Te Kete.

We have just been through turbulent times, and our times now are different, but they are no more certain.

Auckland University of Technology (AUT) says academic integrity breaches are taken very seriously. Photo / NZME

We are a small nation used to independently working in the world, yet we face a geopolitical situation which is neither settled nor benign.

Our own local political environment is in ferment, as a range of social and cultural contests are live, the temperature seems higher, consensus is harder to find, and many old certainties and agreements are less certain or actively contested.

Meantime, for many of our students, and those in our communities, the cost of living remains deeply challenging, and economic and commercial uncertainty is impacting our shared grass roots.

Our sector is also under not just one, but two reviews: change is coming, and it will likely deliver both opportunities and challenge.

Meantime, we continue to live unsustainably, collectively unwilling to make, or to prioritise, the changes in ourselves and our ways of living that would secure our planetary future. The carbon break enforced by the pandemic now in the past as we burn carbon and travel like it was 2019.

Perhaps even more fundamentally, we are a knowledge institution, at a time experiencing a global decline in trust, in authority, in science and in expertise more generally. One poll in the US showed a majority of people - nearly two-thirds - have only very little or some confidence in universities.

This is our weather in which we operate, in which we sail.

In powerful winds, if we do well, we can go further, faster; we cross an ocean.

We have much to celebrate at AUT. It is right at Matariki to think about, and celebrate, our collective impact, as a university, as a community of scholars and professionals.

We have over 150,000 alumni, leading global companies, New Zealand, our schools and our industries. An economic analysis showed that AUT made a direct contribution of over $850 million to the Auckland region , including $426m of direct spending, and attracting over $440m of student spending - which doesn’t include fees.

AUT attracts research income, visitors, whānau, businesses in a range of indirect and induced activity. Our suppliers and supporters make AUT’s footprint even broader. We cannot measure this induced and indirect value easily, or with precision, but an analysis posits it could well sit somewhere between $1.4 and $1.9 billion.

That’s another way of casting the huge difference AUT makes in our city, region, and nation. With our transformational teaching, research and partnership, that’s the AUT difference. Imagine what Auckland would look like without AUT.

There is much to celebrate and be grateful for in the past year.

• 88% of available graduates were working fulltime in 2023 – the highest number recorded since 2014 and 92% of graduates completed work-integrated learning.

• We saw a 5% increase in the success rate of our students from underserved communities.

• Earlier this year when the Times Higher Education Supplement ranked the top 20 universities in the world who delivered the most “bang for buck”, they ranked AUT at number 20, behind the Sorbonne at #1, and Cornell at #19. We were the only university from Australia or New Zealand on this list.

AUT has, for a quarter of a century, been the most distinctive development in the NZ university sector. Some version of change is coming to our sector, via the University and Science Sector Reviews, via the great changes happening around us in the world. It is not in AUT’s interest or its wairua to lean away from change, but to lean in - and to lead - where we should.

It is important for AUT’s wellbeing and future, and our ability to make a difference for our students, stakeholders and communities that we don’t just change once, but that we welcome change, and that we are good at it.

And the way we do it matters. Our strategy aims for our culture to be student-centred, values-led, and collaborative. This culture and our values of pono, tika and aroha is how we keep the waka safe, thriving, resilient and future-focused.

The great voyaging vessels in the central Pacific were known in Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga as Drua/ Kalia/Alia. Huge vessels capable of carrying more than 100 people, over hundreds of kilometres, they were marvels of technology. The hulls were not carved from single trees but assembled, and not with iron and steel as in other parts of the world, but stitched together with binding from coconut fibres, and caulking from breadfruit. As catamarans, the two hulls worked both independently and together, flexing as well as binding within the powerful forces of the ocean and wind.

From the power, technology and beauty of the alia comes one of my favourite Samoan proverbs. It is used to call people together when teamwork, harmony and cooperation are essential: “Ua fetaui lelei fola o le ‘alia” – “The deck-planks of the voyaging canoe fit together well”. It is an observation that the deck planks of the alia fit beautifully together, that there is harmony, and that the vessel will be fast, strong, and look after its people.

With such a vessel we will go well together, and go far. Even when the seas and winds are stormy.

-NZ Herald