This year we are proudly celebrating the University of Otago’s 150th anniversary. As New Zealand’s oldest university, we have the privilege of marking many “firsts”. Many of those firsts are described in Dr Ali Clarke’s book, Otago: 150 Years of New Zealand’s First University and an extended interview with Ali is included in this edition of the Otago Magazine. As you will learn from Ali’s book, founding a university in the early days of Dunedin on the heels of the gold rush was not easy, but the foresight and fortitude of our Scottish founders changed the face of education in New Zealand forever. The Scottish approach to education was open and egalitarian. Because they believed that education was the key to their future and to the future of their children and grandchildren, they also believed that it should be available to all.
I would like to think that those early Scottish settlers would be extremely proud of what we have achieved over the last 150 years. The egalitarian values upon which Otago was founded continue to guide our ethos today. By way of example, 30 per cent of our students are the first person in their family to attend university. As a first generation university student myself, I know that a university education changed not only my life, but also the opportunities of my children. I am proud that the University of Otago continues to provide the opportunity of education to everyone.
Over the past 150 years, Otago has grown into an institution of local, national and international significance with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research. In terms of teaching, University of Otago academic staff have won more national teaching awards than academic staff in any other New Zealand university; an Otago academic has been the winner of the Prime Minister’s Supreme Award for teaching in six of the last seven years.
Otago students are clearly flourishing under the excellent tutelage they receive here. Each year the Tertiary Education Commission ranks the New Zealand universities based on metrics of academic success.
Otago has topped these metrics for many years. In fact, our graduation and progression rates are not only the best in New Zealand, but they are also equivalent to those of some of the best universities in the world.
In terms of research, we also continue to excel. In 2018, Otago booked our highest research income in the history of our University – earning more than $100 million in external revenue and, once again, we gained the largest share of the highly competitive Marsden Fund. Otago academic staff continue to make a concerted effort to put their research to use in New Zealand and around the world. In the first few months of this year alone, Otago researchers have been leading debates on cannabis reform, cancer care and climate change. They are helping us to understand complex issues like euthanasia, maternity care, health reform and sustainability. In fact, many of our researchers have become household names throughout New Zealand because of their clear media commentary and considered advice to Government.
One of the key success factors that our founders could never have anticipated is the value of our residential environment. Since 1869, students have been the lifeblood of the University of Otago. Approximately 85 per cent of our current students come from outside Dunedin; 75 per cent come from outside Otago/Southland. These audacious, adventurous young people leave their homes, their families and their friends and join us here in Dunedin, typically living in one of our 14 undergraduate residential colleges. In their second year, they move to flats on Castle Street, Hyde Street, Dundas Street, Leith Street, etc. The student population of North Dunedin is equivalent to the population of entire towns like Ashburton or Whakatane.
Although the high concentration of young people living within close proximity to the University poses some challenges, it also creates unrivalled opportunities for our students to be engaged in meaningful extra-curricular and co-curricular activity with their peers. The Otago University Students’ Association (OUSA) supports more than 120 different clubs and societies. The residential colleges host an annual intercollegiate sports and cultural competition that includes students living locally at home or in flats (Locals Programme). Our volunteer centre, recently rebranded as the Social Impact Studio, continues to thrive. In 2018, Otago students volunteered their time to more than 180 different community organisations. In that same year, first-year students in the residential colleges volunteered 6,644 hours of their time, raised $18,475 for charity, planted 393 trees and potentially saved 135 lives through blood donations. As I am writing this piece, we are planning for the University of Otago Relay for Life, where thousands of our students will walk the campus throughout the night to raise money for cancer research.
International research shows that these kinds of activities are the best predictors of success following graduation. Students who participate in high quality extra-curricular and co-curricular activity and who understand the obligation that comes with privilege, are also more financially successful as adults, and they are happier, and physically and mentally healthier and more connected to their communities. These experiences are also what make Otago graduates stand out in the work place. They graduate not only with a head full of knowledge, but also with the skills and maturity to succeed in their career of choice. Over the course of their lifetime, our graduates make major contributions to the intellectual, cultural, spiritual and economic well-being of their families, their communities and their country. For many, their contribution extends throughout the world. You will have the opportunity to read about some of these alumni in this edition of the Otago Magazine.
At Otago, we have been blessed with a distinguished past. During this year, I would invite everyone to take time to learn more about the history of our fine University. One way to do that is to read Ali Clarke’s book; another way is to watch an outstanding video of our history, narrated by Professor Tony Ballantyne, which you can find on our website.
“2019 will also be a year in which we plan for our future. As the human face of our students change, so will the reach of our University”
In addition to celebrating our history, 2019 will also be a year in which we plan for our future. As the human face of our students change, so will the reach of our University. Year on year we continue to grow our Māori and Pacifica numbers. Māori now make up 11 per cent of our domestic cohort. This year, we welcomed hundreds of new Māori students at our powhiri at the Ōtākou marae. Similarly, we have seen growth in Pacific student numbers since 2009. This year we are welcoming our biggest cohort in history: more than 1,000 Pacific students will study at Otago this year, including Pacific international students and students undertaking higher levels of study at honours, masters’ and doctoral postgraduate programmes.
But some things about Otago will never change. Like all great universities, Otago remains fiercely independent. We pride ourselves on nurturing graduates who understand the value of free speech, who do not shirk from ideas that are different from their own, who have the ability to get comfortable with the uncomfortable and who are not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom. In short, we continue to encourage our students to take up the challenge laid down by our motto: Sapere Aude – Dare to be Wise.
My greatest hope for Otago is that when future generations of staff and students celebrate the 300th anniversary of our University, they reflect on the wisdom of the developments we will set in motion over the next few years. As alumni, I invite you to apply your time, your talent and your resources to helping us shape a very exciting future.
Professor Harlene Hayne