Equity for A/EM populations and the role of the University – Rachel Simon-Kumar

The following is an extract from the ABI Equity and Diversity Communique – September 2021 Issue.

Greetings ABI,

This month’s Equity and Diversity Committee newsletter will begin with a piece from Associate Professor Rachel Simon-Kumar in Social and Community Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences. As a researcher and teacher her work sits at the interface of cultural diversity, migration and gender, and the experience of social and health inequalities. In 2019, she was appointed Co-Director of the Centre for Asian Health Research and Evaluation (CAHRE) at the School of Population Health. She has also served as International Student Advisor in the School. In a voluntary capacity, she serves as a Trustee of Shama, the Ethnic Women’s Trust, whose programmes are aimed at empowering migrant and ethnic minority women. In all these roles, the theory and practice of equity has been fundamental to her career.

The following piece touches on some issues of equity for Asian/ethnic minority (A/EM) population groups, and our role as a university in the changing landscape of diversity in New Zealand.

We know that New Zealand is increasingly becoming a multi-ethnic – Asian and MeLAA (Middle Eastern, Latin American and African) groups are currently around 17% of the total NZ population, roughly doubling in number between 2006 and 2018. A majority of this group are migrants who have arrived since radical amendments to NZ’s immigration policy in 1987.

Although immigration processes ensure general healthiness – “the Healthy Migrant Effect” – there are particular health conditions associated with the A/EM population group. These include pronounced levels of CVD, diabetes, and vitamin B and D deficiencies. South Asian women are notably represented in neonatal mortality rates, intentional injuries, and some statistics relating to suicide. This snapshot of their health implicitly points to the impact of both culture and migration. For example, culturally, Asians are less likely to undertake physical activities. Migration, on the other hand, impacts identity, social connectedness, participation, and belonging, i.e., it can foster marginalization that has wellbeing implications. To understand health outcomes, research must understand the complex ways in which both interact.

Despite the growing Asian/ethnic minority population, there is relatively little research evidence on this population group. My colleagues and I conducted a systematic review of all health research in New Zealand on Asians between 2010 and 2019 (Chiang et al., forthcoming ) and concluded that much of the published research focuses on a minority of ‘ethnic’ diseases, such as CVD and diabetes. Meanwhile, there are huge gaps in themes ranging from Asian sexuality and gender diversities, eating disorders and young people’s needs, ageing A/EM populations, brain, respiratory health, cancer, etc.,etc., etc. The list goes on. Without broadening our research lens, we cannot identify areas where there is genuine need.

At the same time, A/EM are also a very heterogeneous group; they are diverse in terms of socio-economic status, cultural backgrounds (religion, social group, region), visa status (citizens, permanent residents, those on temporary visas, students, from refugee backgrounds), and the length of time in the country (born in New Zealand or recently arrived). So although we tend to label them as ‘Asians’ or ‘migrants’, the experiences of this group are vastly different. This heterogeneity requires that we understand equity in nuanced ways.

In a recently published book, Intersections of Inequality, Migration and Diversification , my co-editors and I (Simon-Kumar et al., 2020) argue that while it is important to study the inequalities between migrant and non-migrant groups, what is becoming more relevant to focus on are the growing inequalities among, between and within migrant groups. Social variables such as age, sex/gender, ethnicity, occupation, etc. refract the lived experiences of migrants in considerably different ways.

For instance, the wellbeing of a nurse on a temporary visa from the Philippines or India who may have arrived 2 years ago is vastly different from a IT engineer from the same region on a skilled migrant visa who moved to New Zealand around 20 years ago. Although there may be cultural commonalities, there are significant other differences between them. Equity within these intersections needs to be better understood if we are to make policy or programmes that are effectively targeted.

Hopefully, with the entry of a new generation of young scholars into university who are keen to study aspects of their own identity-groups, there might be a future growth of research in these fields.

According to the 2020 Equity Profile released by the University of Auckland, by and large, Asian and MeLAA students are the second largest student groups enrolled at both the undergraduate and postgraduate level (Equity Profile 2020, pg. 11-12). Not only is this a significant student presence, this body of A/EM young people have honed their consciousness and identity in an era where race and ethnicity are a dominant topic of public discussion. In many ways, they are the generation that has entered NZ society in the wake of the Christchurch massacre of 2019, the Black Lives Matter movement, global rise of racism, attention to indigenous people’s rights, and the NZ government’s own diversity and inclusion platform that includes the recent dramatic increase in ethnic minority politicians in Parliament. A/EM young people also increasingly recognize themselves as tauiwi, keen to build a new connections and whakawhanuangatanga with tangata whenua.

Against these significant diversifications among the student body, it is imperative our teaching and research institutions are better equipped to reflect the new generation of A/EM learners. This means better representation of Asian/ethnic minority staff across the university’s faculties, visibility of A/EM role models in decision-making, more courses and use of frameworks that reflect Asian/ethnic minority realities. At CAHRE, for instance, one of our priorities is to develop a framework for doing culturally-sensitive and culturally-appropriate A/EM health research so as to support the next generation of health scholars. Progress in these areas can only be possible with commitment from the University. Although neither the University’s recently published Equity Review Report (2021) nor Te Ara Tautika Annual Plan (2020-2022) specifically mention Asian/ethnic minority groups and their needs, it may well be that these become an explicit part of its equity agenda in the future.