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From past and present to future

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From past and present to future

Changes, challenges and opportunities: Otago’s Director of Strategy David Thomson says the University is taking a longer-term approach to strategic planning with Vision 2040.

As a third generation Otago graduate with a strong Scottish ancestry, I am as proud as anyone of Otago reaching its 150th birthday milestone this year. But as a parent of a current student, with a day job that involves thinking about the University’s strategy, I am equally interested in what the future might hold.

Using my own family’s multi-generational university journey as a reference point, if history is any guide, profound change in the years ahead is an absolute certainty.

When my grandparents graduated from Otago in the mid-1930s, it was home to some 1,250 students. Those students were predominantly male, overwhelmingly Pākehā and largely from the lower South Island of New Zealand. When my parents followed in the early 1960s, the roll had more than doubled, women were studying in greater numbers, but little else had changed in the University’s student profile.

When my turn came to graduate in the mid-1980s the roll was around 8,000 and female students were in the majority. Students from the lower South Island were still in the majority too, but barely so, and Otago now had well-established campuses in Christchurch and Wellington. The student cohort was five per cent Asian, and roughly 1.6 per cent Māori and 1.6 per cent Pacific. Most of those Asian and Pacific students had come from overseas, as part of a relatively small but increasingly diverse international student roll.

Technology was starting to transform students’ lives: for example, after some negotiation, I become the first history student at Otago to complete an honours dissertation using a (very primitive) word processor rather than having it professionally typed.

The Otago that my son entered in 2018 was over 20,000 students strong. Those students were 58 per cent female and three quarters came from beyond the lower South Island. There were seven times as many Pacific students as in my final undergraduate year, 10 times as many international students and 16 times more Māori. Digital technology had become ubiquitous in students’ academic (and social) life. Otago’s physical presence had expanded further to include a specialist campus in Invercargill, a facility in downtown Auckland and smaller outposts – mainly in the health sciences – at other locations.

As the Vice-Chancellor has signalled elsewhere in this publication, we are using this year’s 150th celebration as a springboard from which to develop a vision for the future.

A starting point for that future vision are major issues that Otago – and other universities around the world – are grappling with right now. These include: representation by gender, ethnicity and socio-economic background in our student cohorts; student resilience, mental health and well-being; political and societal threats to free speech and open debate; societies focused on the employment outcomes of degrees and the immediate utility of research; new ways of teaching and learning; and the rise of Asia (and especially China) as a force in higher education.

Like all organisations, we are operating in a world that appears less stable than at any time in our recent past. That instability has political dimensions (including a rise in nationalist sentiment) that interact with other forces such as environmental change and new technology.

Even if one does not accept the popular rhetoric that change over the coming years will be greater than at any time in human history, planning for the future is challenging in the current world. For that reason, Otago is changing the way in which it approaches its future strategy, by shifting from a strategy that looks just five to seven years out, to one that looks 20 years ahead.

While this approach may seem counter-intuitive in a period of instability and major change, we are not alone among leading universities in moving to a longer-term strategic approach.

A clear longer-term direction should protect us against being diverted by short-term fads and the strategic priorities of others. It also aligns with the reality that our major investments – ranging from a newly-minted PhD graduate we might hire as an academic to a building we construct – are intended to be investments for a much longer period than five to seven years. Similarly, genuinely transformational research is a long-term enterprise, and the skills and attributes we seek to develop in our graduates are meant to last a lifetime, not expire in just a few years.

Vision 2040, the project to develop our long-term strategy, has already commenced internally and will gather strength as we embark on widespread consultation later in the year. Through that consultation we will be asking our major partners and stakeholders for their views on the sort of university Otago should seek to be, or become, over the next 20 years, and how they believe we should respond to the challenges and opportunities we may face.

Input from alumni is vital.

We are also planning for deep engagement with students in developing our future vision. In that context, I think of my own son and his peers, many of whom will be the parents of a soon-to-arrive next generation of students when 2040 rolls around.

Among much that is uncertain, there are some things we can confidently predict about the world they will live in: for example, New Zealand will have significantly higher proportions of young Māori, Asian and Pasifika people; it will have been further re-shaped by technology and, perhaps even more profoundly, by the sustainability steps taken to enable a viable future for our species on this planet.

Current students and those who follow immediately behind them in the school system are far more aware of these looming changes and issues than my generation were as students, and they will be the ones who undertake the heavy lifting in defining and implementing our society’s response.

One of the roles of Vision 2040 is to set a course for Otago to play a vital role in supporting that response. We occupy a point very similar to that of our founding fathers, who established this University at a time of massive change and uncertainty, but with an unerring eye on the future.

David Thomson is Director of Strategy, Analytics and Reporting at the University of Otago. He graduated from Otago with a BA(Hons) in History in 1986, returning to complete an MBA in 2002.