New university data indicates the circumstances you're born into are likely yours for life.

She was a high school drop-out at age 14, working in a cafe at 18. If you'd asked her back then, there was no way Ashley Insley would have imagined she'd go on to become a doctor. In her hometown of Te Kaha, a tiny village on the impoverished East Coast, no one had dreams like that. The usual route was to leave school and get a job to help support your family, who were likely living week-to-week.

"I'd never met anyone who had gone to university as a kid because people just didn't do it," Insley, 26, says. "There were no role models. Everyone just worked in an orchard, or on a farm, whatever their parents did."

But Insley, who'd always loved learning, wasn't quite satisfied with that. She tried to go back to school, but found being the only Year 13 student frustrating and dull. She tried to be happy in the cafe, but finally gave up the day a customer threw a piece of fish at her. "I just thought, I do not need this. I can do something more," she says.

She began looking for a nursing course that might take her. In a stroke of luck, Otago University had just launched a new scholarship programme for Māori students wanting to study health science. Despite having no qualifications, Insley was accepted, eventually making it in to medicine and graduating as a doctor in 2016. She went home to Te Kaha only three times in seven years, unable to afford the flights. She was the first person in her family to get a degree.

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Insley's story is the kind we like to tell ourselves in this country. But her success is a rare exception to the rule now entrenched within our education system - that students from poor backgrounds will not succeed at the highest levels. Data shows just 6 per cent of those accepted into the elite university courses of law, medicine and engineering come from our most disadvantaged homes. Meanwhile, more than half the entrants are from families on the top three tiers of the income ladder. In simple terms, poor are outnumbered by the rich 10 to one.

This is the new New Zealand, once touted as a great egalitarian state, but now a place where the circumstances of birth and family are so strong they are almost impossible to overcome. Data shows New Zealand is now more unequal than the countries its 19th century founders fled, the eighth worst in the OECD according to the Gini inequality measure. Despite the settlers' desire to throw off the rigid structures of their former lives, in less than 200 years their "classless" society has stratified into rich, middle and poor, with property ownership a driving force.

Insley says children are often not encouraged to go to university. Photo / Alan Gibson
Insley says children are often not encouraged to go to university. Photo / Alan Gibson

Education, the traditional route to a better life, cannot compete. Instead of levelling the playing field, data shows the system is more likely to simply replicate the advantage or disadvantage its pupils are born with.

Achievement gaps between rich and poor are evident throughout the school system, and grow wider as students age. For example, while at NCEA Level 2 there is a 7 percentage point lag between the pass rates of the most and least deprived, by the time students attempt Level 3, it's 18 points. Four times as many rich students gain University Entrance as poor students. And while 50 per cent of students from the high decile schools go on to university, only 17 per cent from the low deciles make it in.

Where the ultimate advantage plays out, however, is in the university courses with limited numbers and high entry thresholds - degrees which also lead to the highest salaries. Data sourced from six universities shows while 60 perc ent of the almost 16,000 students accepted into law, medicine and engineering in the past five years came from the richest third of homes, just 6 per cent came from the poorest third.

The further down the income ladder you go, the more desperate the figures become. If you only include those from decile one schools, the most disadvantaged, the figure drops to just 1 per cent.

Most programmes accepted only a handful of students from decile one schools each year, and sometimes none. For example, Auckland University's medical school took 12 decile one students out of 1160 total admissions to its second-year course. Victoria law school took eight of 1400. Otago law took three, of 1180. And Canterbury engineering took one, of more than 2000.

"It is awful knowing that's the case," says Ashley Insley. "But I can't say I'm surprised."

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Even without the financial barriers to university study, the disadvantages in deprived schools were extremely tough, she says. For example, Te Kaha's school didn't have a science teacher. It couldn't get anyone to come to a place, that while beautiful, was an hour from the closest supermarket or petrol station.

"We weren't taught physics, or chemistry. And there was no encouragement, no motivation to do it yourself," Insley says. "The general consensus was you're not good enough to do further study. And if you tell people they're not good enough, they'll believe that."

The egalitarian myth drags on

New Zealand's education system is not alone in its inability to address persistent inequality. In the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, the same patterns exist.

Studies overseas have found that even where poor students have high test scores, they are less likely to go university than their rich peers with lower marks. More important than intelligence is the ability to capitalise on intelligence. Those with wealth are able to cluster together in the best neighbourhoods and and fill up the best schools. They can afford extra tuition and nutritious food and to give their children their own rooms and desks. They go on to get the best jobs.

In New Zealand, the exclusion of the poor is epitomised by prohibitive property prices in "top" school zones, and in the white flight from low-decile schools. Just like elsewhere, our poorest students end up segregated in smaller schools with fewer resources, bearing the burden of concentrated disadvantage - more students who are cold and hungry and stressed.

Unlike elsewhere, however, New Zealand has been reluctant to acknowledge the problem as a class issue, a phenomenon wider than the education system, a flow-on effect from the way society is structured as a whole.

Experts say there are several reasons for this. Firstly, they argue New Zealand simply isn't ready to let go of its founding egalitarian myth - despite evidence that narrative hasn't been true for a long time - and possibly never was.

Dr Alan France, sociology professor at Auckland University. Photo / Dean Purcell.
Dr Alan France, sociology professor at Auckland University. Photo / Dean Purcell.

"People in New Zealand believe - and want to believe - it's an open society. It's something New Zealanders hold close to them," says Alan France, a sociology professor at Auckland University and an expert on class and youth.

"It's a view and has always been a view that New Zealand rejected the traditional class systems of the UK and tried to set up alternative systems. But all they did was create a new system based on land and property rather than work."

Equally, in a society that values hard work, most people were reluctant to confront their privilege.

In his seminal paper Education's Inconvenient Truth, Waikato University education professor Martin Thrupp said in gaining access to the best schools, most parents would argue they are only doing what's best for their children - as is their right. To see their behaviour as disadvantaging others was much more difficult.

"At a personal level such middle class advantage raises an ethical challenge for all of us who are middle class parents: to recognise the line to be drawn between advantaging our own children and doing this at the expense of other people's children," he said.

Lastly, class analysis in New Zealand is complicated by race. Partly, this is due to Maori rejecting the perspective they are just another marginalised group, rather than having a special claim under the Treaty of Waitangi. However, it is also because there is an undeniable ethnic aspect to poverty in Aotearoa.

However, France says while Māori and Pasifika people are over-represented in deprivation figures, conflating the two ideas was unhelpful. Although culturally inappropriate education affected achievement it was still not as pervasive as the impact of growing up poor. For example, research by Universities New Zealand recently found ethnicity only accounted for at most ten percent of the observed difference in performance in a student's first university year.

"We talk about increasing Māori and Pacific participation at university, but actually the underlying issue is socio-economics," France says. "It's money. It's class. It's privilege. And we need to bring that into the open."

Income data shows the current disparities - where the top decile receive about 7.5 times as much as the bottom - have persisted in New Zealand for 25 years. France - and other experts - believe our refusal to acknowledge it will only reinforce that trend. And it is harmful. And even if you can ignore the ethical issues created by a lack of opportunity for all children, there are fiscal and social side effects too.

Chris Whelan, the head of Universities New Zealand, says when a whole part of the population missed out on the huge benefits of tertiary education, the taxpayer also missed out.

Tertiary graduates earned an average $1.4 million extra across their lifetimes, Whelan says. That means extra cash in the tax pool. They also have better health, life expectancy, outcomes for their kids, and access to housing - reducing the burden on the taxpayer at the other end too.

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"And those benefits are intergenerational. Statistics show no matter what it is - it could be a trade - three years of extra education will give you a good return," Whelan says. "It's better than winning Lotto."

Experts also argue having only the elite working as professionals - particularly in crucial fields like medicine and law - was also problematic in terms of social good. For one, graduates were less likely to come from small, needy communities and therefore less likely to want to return there to work.

"For example, what's the likelihood of someone from the North Shore going and serving somewhere like Kawakawa?" says Zoe Bristowe, an Otago University doctoral candidate researching equity. "If we were recruiting more doctors from there it would be much easier."

Middle-class graduates were also less likely to understand poverty, simply from lack of experience. In medicine, that could mean anything from miscommunication, misdiagnosis or a breakdown in the doctor-patient relationship.

In law, it could play out as prejudice. Keaka Hemi, the associate dean of law at Waikato University and an expert in racial discrimination, says under-representation in the legal field was an ongoing problem.

"For example, we have disproportionate representation of Māori and Pacific people in the justice system. But they are being prosecuted by those without knowledge of those cultures or poverty."

While lawyers and judges might not be racist or bad people, they could not help carrying bias, just like anyone else, Hemi says. "Judges are human too."

"The silence is deafening"

By far the biggest hurdle for disadvantaged students gaining entrance to university is their academic performance. Each institution raised similar points. Under-achievement started early - not enough low-decile students progress to Year 13. Not enough take the subjects required to progress to a degree. And not enough gain the minimum entry qualification. Last year just 20 per cent at low-decile schools passed University Entrance compared to 64 per cent at high decile.

"We do not mention this as an excuse, but rather as a reality and to highlight that the issue is not purely - or, perhaps, even mainly - a university one," says Otago University Deputy Vice-Chancellor Vernon Squire.

In a research paper earlier this year, Universities New Zealand identified what it thought schools' weaknesses were. It listed a lack of career guidance, poor subject choices, low expectations, and the quality of teaching.

"Retention, achievement and subject choice at school improve a student's chances of participating in university study. Without this, the pathway to attend university becomes more difficult or closes altogether," the paper said.

However, school principals say it is unfair to place the onus on them alone, and that the universities must also take responsibility. They say universities aren't as involved as they need to be; their entry standards are inflexible; and they lack adequate outreach and support programmes.

Manurewa High School principal Pete Jones said one area where universities could easily be more innovative was during the transition process. While in trades courses, students could do three days at school, one day at polytech and one day working. The universities did not offer the same. They also did not offer such high levels of pastoral care.

"We've got some amazing kids who given the opportunity would absolutely thrive," Jones says. "But the challenge is we have a lot of wraparound support, and when our students take that next step, that's not there."

Aorere College student Chris Hammond, 17, says he knows university will be tougher than school, but he's ready for it. He plans to study engineering at Auckland next year, if he can get a scholarship. He chose it because it was difficult - and he likes a challenge - and because of the pay.

"No one in my family has been to university before so it's entering a different territory," he says. "It's the adult world... at Aorere if your work is late, they give you a chance. But I know university won't be like that. But I'm good on deadlines. I've just got to stay focused, stay disciplined."

The universities argue they do offer significant support to at-risk students, although all express a strong desire to do better. Otago, Victoria, Waikato, Canterbury and AUT provided the Weekend Herald long lists of their equity programmes and scholarships, which they use to help students with pastoral support, mentoring and finances. Auckland did not respond to questions.

Some of the universities say they have gone to great lengths to widen participation. AUT, for example ran a large number of foundation courses, and a summer course named Uni Prep, aimed at softening the transition from school. It also built a campus in South Auckland.

"We think that's quite major," AUT Vice Chancellor Derek McCormack says. The campus had 2000 full time students, 75 per cent from areas of high deprivation.

Derek McCormack, vice chancellor of Auckland University of Technology. Photo / Richard Robinson
Derek McCormack, vice chancellor of Auckland University of Technology. Photo / Richard Robinson

McCormack says its law school, like that at Waikato University, also ran its selection process at year one, not year two, so students were not fearful of a cut-off process. Interestingly, both schools have a much broader spread of students, including a higher proportion - around 15 percent - of those from the poorest homes.

"That was a deliberate move - to address the fact that law was full of white, middle-class males," says Waikato law dean Wayne Rumbles. "It creates a different culture. More collaboration than competition. That resonates with low-decile first year students and resonates strongly with Māori and Pasifika."

Associate Professor Wayne Rumbles, Dean of Law, University of Waikato . Photo / Michael Craig
Associate Professor Wayne Rumbles, Dean of Law, University of Waikato . Photo / Michael Craig

Another recent example of simple innovation also came from Waikato. In 2015, the university introduced a $1 per trip bus service across the region, after after Vice-chancellor Neil Quigley discovered the main reason students from small, outlying towns like Tokoroa and Putaruru were not enrolling was they couldn't afford to rent in Hamilton, but couldn't afford transport either.

At the same time, it created a scholarship programme that recognised financial hardship. It now takes 130 students a year. One of the original cohort, Mikaela Pennefeather, 20, said for her, it had meant she could keep her job and live at home in Tokoroa while studying. "It was a long day, getting up early to get the bus, but it really lowered the stress," she said.

Mikaela Pennefather, 20, University of Waikato student. Photo / Michael Craig
Mikaela Pennefather, 20, University of Waikato student. Photo / Michael Craig

The added benefit to the university was a boom in enrolments, and a trickle-down at the schools where younger students see a clearer pathway.The downside was the cost. In what came as a surprise to Quigley, the money for the programme had to come from the university's bottom line.

"I imagined there would be some public sector funding to support these things, but when we asked the TEC, the Ministry of Social Development and the Ministry of Education there wasn't anything," he says.

Researcher Zoe Bristowe says she felt similarly after trying to find out what policies New Zealand had to address equal participation for the poor. At a national level, there appeared to be none, she says.

"The silence is deafening. We know there's a problem and I'm not hearing anything about it."

When the Weekend Herald asked the TEC for any policy about low-income students, it replied its goal was equity for Māori and Pasifika by 2020. It was also focused on careers education, and instilling aspiration and motivation earlier. Any other equity programmes were at the universities' discretion, it said.

Bristowe says blaming aspiration was a cop out. "That just says poor people don't have aspirations, that's just deficit stuff." Equally, she says the focus on ethnicity was a problem. While those policies helped achieve equity for one marginalised group, they didn't necessarily help another.

Bristowe understands the complex interaction between ethnicity and poverty better than most. In addition to her research, she helps run Otago's health science Māori equity programme - a scheme that last year saw 40 Maori doctors graduate, double that ten years ago.

While evaluating the programme, however, Bristowe discovered almost all the graduates came from high decile schools, and very few from areas of deprivation.

"It doesn't reflect Māori in society," she says. "We need to ensure that our cohorts reflect our population. We want a health professional that understands poverty. Who understands their patients aren't choosing to make a call about living with 11 people, who understands they're not choosing cigarettes and alcohol over feeding their kids."

She says Otago wanted to address the disparity - not by getting rid of the Māori or Pasifika programmes - but by adding a pilot specific to low income kids next year.

A more targeted approach

In 2016, Sione* was head boy and dux at his low-decile school. He passed University Entrance and successfully applied to Auckland University. Despite his excellent marks, he did not gain a scholarship. Instead, he worked 40 hours a week on top of studying, to help support his family. Fortunately for Sione, his story has a happy ending. After one semester, the equity office realised his potential, and arranged financial assistance so he could focus on study.

Others have not been so lucky. Schools told the Weekend Herald they frequently see bright students drop out of university in their first year, overwhelmed by financial or family pressure. One teacher told of a family with three girls, all who wanted to get degrees. But the household could only afford to have one daughter out of the wage pool at at time. So while the eldest studies, the others have to wait their turn.

When Chris Whelan from Universities New Zealand hears that story, he sighs down the phone.

"There is a heck of a lot more support needed," he says. "It can't just be one initiative, it needs to be a suite of changes."

His list includes incentives for schools and universities to work together, a more generous student allowance, and a funding mechanism that recognises the risk of taking on more marginal entrants. Universities are penalised if they don't meet targets around pass rates, meaning they are less inclined to take on at-risk students, he says.

"We've got to adjust for university preparedness," Whelan says. "You cannot compare University of Auckland with AUT - they're adding value in different ways. If you're taking in marginal kids and churning them out you're adding more value than taking in great scholars and churning out great scholars."

He says the Government's fees free scheme is not the answer because it is not putting resource where it will make the biggest difference.

"Those benefiting from it are likely to come from middle class or affluent families and be prepared for university and careers," he says. "A more targeted approach would deliver better outcomes for New Zealand."

Education minister Chris Hipkins says the idea poor people are subsiding the middle class is "ridiculous". Fees free is about changing the public attitude to post-school education, he said, in the recognition secondary schooling was no longer enough.

He agrees universities needed to do more work with schools and has asked them to ensure their equity schemes are taking students who would not have opportunities otherwise. He has not had time to consider funding mechanisms yet, but says targeted funding was an option.

"We are going to have to look closely at how we better support young people to aspire to something higher," he says. "We know we're not necessarily getting in to that real relationship between low-socio economics and educational achievement."

"It's hard just to stop being poor"

Since graduating, Insley has worked at hospitals in Whakatane and Tauranga. Her success has inspired a handful of students from Te Kaha to go to university, to study nursing, and law, and physiotherapy.

"They all say to me 'because of you we've seen you can do it too'. It's awesome," she says. However, Insley believed communities like Te Kaha needed more help.

"It's hard just to stop being poor, to change your situation when you're in it," she says. "It's hard to focus on yourself and research what you can do to better your future. If the universities reached out it would encourage more people to consider professional programmes."

Recently, a Māori patient came into the hospital. Insley watched as he refused to engage with the consultant, and then disappeared from the ward. When security brought him back, she approached, said Kia Ora, and told him her name.

"As soon as he knew I was Māori he was really engaged. It turns out we were related," she says. "He listened, and understood we wanted him to get better. And that is why this stuff is important, so we can help people."

* Not his real name