An Auckland tertiary college has sparked a row by describing some of its student graduates as "tauiwi" - a Maori word for foreigners.

Students honoured at an Auckland College of Education social work graduation ceremony were listed under three ethnic classes - Maori, Pacifica, or tauiwi.

The word created uproar when Associate Maori Minister Tariana Turia once used it in a speech.

National MP Murray McCully said listing students by their ethnicity had given him a "stunning glimpse of the evil role played by some in our key educational institutions".

Criticising what he called rampant political correctness, he wrote in his website newsletter: "The Tauiwi category comprises your sons and daughters of decent, law abiding ... non-Maori New Zealanders, being told by a Government-owned, taxpayer-funded, ministerially directed educational institution that they are strangers in the land of their birth.

"Your suggestions are hereby solicited for the most cruel and unnatural form of punishment to be administered to one Dr John Langley, the principal of this establishment, whose stupidity enables this foolishness to occur."

An angry Dr Langley told the Weekend Herald he was disgusted by Mr McCully's outburst and hit out at what he said was a worrying trend where the term "politically correct" was used as a label to "slag off" people.

Tauiwi was only used to described graduates of the faculty of applied social sciences, and had been used "as far back as can be remembered and it's never been an issue".

The word was not used in its meaning of stranger, he said. "It means a person whose ancestry is from another land. The term pakeha could equally be used but it was seen to be, I believe, a more formal term."

Asked if his meaning could equally apply to Maori and Pacific Islanders, Dr Langley said: "It could but one of the reasons this programme was developed in the first place was there was a particular need at the time it was developed to provide for ... the Maori and Pacifica communities."

The programme, he said, began about 20 years ago. "Over the 21 years, this programme has graduated about 800 people and something like a third have been Maori and a third from Pacifica backgrounds."

Dr Langley said he could not believe Mr McCully's attack: "It's almost as though if you disagree with groups of individuals within education, [the] way of dealing with it is to describe it as political correctness."

Tauiwi: What is it?

"Strange tribe, foreign race"

- HW Williams' Dictionary of the Maori Language

Herald Feature: Sharing a Country

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