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International ties in Otago students’ interests

Tuesday, 11 July 2017 8:10pm

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Otago's collegiate lifestyle is among the best in the world.

Otago Residential Colleges are forging closer links with other collegiate universities overseas such as Oxford and Cambridge, which also focus on supporting students academically, personally, and culturally – rather than providing only minimally serviced accommodation.

Campus and Collegiate Life Services Director James Lindsay says Otago’s collegiate lifestyle is now “among the very best in the world.”

"As the leading institution in New Zealand in this area, we are looking overseas at the very top-level collegiate universities internationally to find our equal and benchmark against them."

“As the leading institution in New Zealand in this area, we are looking overseas at the very top-level collegiate universities internationally to find our equal and benchmark against them.”

Collegiate universities aim to develop students into well-rounded global citizens while they are living in their residential colleges.

Otago’s colleges help students with their studies, provide emotional support and foster opportunities for personal growth, while helping those students learn how to live respectfully in a diverse group, regulate their own behaviour, develop a strong sense of community and have fun.

The residential college system started in Great Britain – at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in the 13th century then Durham in the 19th century – before spreading to the United States, to Harvard and Yale.

Mr Lindsay says colleges are not the cheapest way to provide a place to sleep, but are “one of the very best ways of achieving academic success and building communities of young people who look out for each other, learn from one another and support each other and their community.”

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Otago's Residential Colleges are much more than a place to sleep.

While Otago runs its colleges on a sound financial model, he believes the University is very fortunate to have leaders who understand the value of the collegiate way.

Otago’s approach is in contrast to a worldwide trend for specialty companies to own or run an increasingly large share of student accommodation, sparking a constant tension between providing high quality care or a dormitory focused on generating a return on investment, Mr Lindsay says.

Former Oxford academic Cardinal John Henry Newman believed a university should be “an Alma Mater, knowing her children one by one, not a foundry, or a mint, or a treadmill”.

The collegiate way aims to provide safe, small college environments within a larger university, so no student is anonymous. Each one is known by their interests, their quirks, their humour, fears, hopes and ambitions – and each one has the best opportunity possible to thrive.

"Just imagine how you would cope with having hundreds of teenagers under your care, not to mention commercial kitchens, millions of dollars’ worth of buildings and grounds, large staff numbers – and to top it all off – you live among it all."

Colleges also have a rhythm of weekly, monthly and annual events that give students a sense of being part of something bigger than themselves, something that existed before them and will continue after them, according to the collegiateway.org.

Otago is a member of a global organisation that embodies those values, Collegiate Way International, an association of university colleges that was founded at Durham University in the United Kingdom in 2014.

The organisation’s mission is to support university colleges around the world and Otago’s Senior Warden of Colleges, Jamie Gilbertson, is on its advisory board. Otago is also lobbying to hold the organisation’s annual conference in 2020.

No two collegiate universities are exactly the same, and no two colleges are either. They all adapt the collegiate model to suit their own environment and needs.

At Otago, every college has its own traditions – including the male spoof Selwyn Ballet, a dress up box, the Knox garden party, and “floor missions,” involving an entire floor of residents combining for dinners, movies, scavenger hunts, picnics, paintball outings and a host of other activities.

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College sports day is one of many activities offered during the year.

A vibrant programme of events also has all the colleges vying for the title of Intercollege Sporting or Intercollege Cultural Champion, by competing in everything from rowing, rugby, netball, and cricket to gaming, singing, chess, Maori and Pacific performance and debating.

But Mr Lindsay says there is a common thread between the colleges: the calibre and dedication of their senior leaders – who are “true community leaders, who work with passion and compassion.”

“Just imagine how you would cope with having hundreds of teenagers under your care, not to mention commercial kitchens, millions of dollars’ worth of buildings and grounds, large staff numbers – and to top it all off – you live among it all.

“The leaders are general managers of a multi-million dollar business one moment, the next solving commercial productions problems, the next a shop steward, then mum, then dad, then a counsellor, then a tutor, then a team coach, a disciplinarian, and confidant and a compassionate leader – all before lunch,” Mr Lindsay says.