Professor Harlene Hayne asks how is it that a moderately-sized university located at the bottom of the world can punch so far above its weight?
On 15 August of this year, I celebrated my fifth anniversary as Vice-Chancellor here at Otago. I have no idea where all that time has gone, but I continue to be extremely proud to lead a University that I know and love so well.
In my role as Vice-Chancellor, I travel a lot – within New Zealand and overseas. In fact, I have just returned from a three-week trip to the United States. The primary goal of my trip was to learn more about the study abroad scheme, which plays such a vital role in the recruitment of students from North America to Otago.
Study abroad has been dispatching adventurous American students overseas for a portion of their undergraduate study (typically a semester) for close to 100 years now. It’s a big operation, with around a quarter of million students placed at partner universities around the world each year.
Study abroad students are very important to Otago, and largely account for the fact that – for many years now – American students are the largest proportion of our international student cohort.
While I knew Otago must be doing plenty right to attract several hundred study abroad students each year, I must confess that I approached this trip with a considerable amount of trepidation. I was afraid that Otago wouldn’t stack up somehow – that I would feel like the poor cousin in the company of my peers from a much richer country with a much richer university system.
But none of these fears were realised. Instead, former study abroad students, their supervisors and even the Presidents of their universities had nothing but great things to say about Otago.
In hindsight, I should have anticipated some of their positive feedback: American study abroad students loved New Zealand. They were thrilled by our great outdoors. They appreciated that our Kiwi students were extremely friendly, engaging, and inclusive. They valued the opportunity to live in the flats in North Dunedin and they made friends, not only with New Zealand students, but with other international exchange students from around the world. They felt welcomed and well supported, and the opportunity to learn more about Māori culture left a lasting impression on all of them.
But there was other feedback that I did not expect – for example, everyone reported that the academic standard at Otago was much higher than that of their home institution. I was constantly told that the American students – many of whom came to us from highly selective, and extremely expensive private universities – had to work twice as hard at Otago as they did at home.
They also told me that Otago required students to think for themselves and to take responsibility for their own learning; that Otago fostered a sense of independence that was initially a bit daunting to many of them.
Instead of asking me to bend our system to fit theirs, both students and staff encouraged me to jealously guard our standards in the wake of an increasingly customer-focused approach to university education. Even the students – the ones who struggled while they were with us – told me how much they learned under our system. They thanked me for their experience at Otago, reporting that they felt much more prepared for their lives and their careers in the wake of their time at Otago. They all reported a huge sense of loyalty to Otago and, even though these young people had only spent a semester with us, I saw more than a few tears of joy and recognition during my presentations about the University.
At the end of the trip, I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz – after a long and exhausting journey, I came to the realisation that everything I needed to know was right here all along.
So you have to ask yourself, how is it that a moderately-sized university located at the bottom of the world can punch so far above its weight? The answer to that question lies in the remarkable people who work and study here at Otago.
After five years as Vice-Chancellor, it is very clear to me that, despite their wonderful individual differences, folks at Otago – both staff and students – in Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington and Invercargill, all share some fundamental things in common. They are smart, ambitious and warm-hearted people. And they’re all a bit edgy – that is, they are willing to take risks to get the most out of their work and the most out of their life.
In this issue of the Otago Magazine we continue to showcase some of our smart, ambitious, warm-hearted and edgy staff and students who are doing world-class work – not only in producing new knowledge through research, but also in sharing that new knowledge through teaching.
I feel privileged to be the Vice-Chancellor here at Otago and I am looking forward to the next five years.