As you will all be aware, this year has been a year like no other. Although 2020 began as usual, by March here at Otago we were living and working under circumstances that we had never experienced before.
IN MY NINE years as Vice-Chancellor, I have never been more proud of this University. Our staff and our students have demonstrated unprecedented levels of resilience, kindness and success through the COVID-19 crisis.
One hallmark of New Zealand’s response to COVID-19 is that it has been evidence-based; much of that evidence has been provided by experts at the University of Otago. Our experts provided advice to Government on the diagnosis, containment and contact tracing of COVID-19; others are currently working on a vaccine. In addition, our experts have provided advice and commentary on the impact of the pandemic on the disability sector, the economy, mental health, tourism, Māori and politics. When the country was running short on hand sanitiser and swabs, experts at Otago even set up manufacturing operations here on campus.
The contribution of Otago staff has been acknowledged by the Prime Minister, the Director-General of Health, the Ministries of Health and Education, and District Health Boards. Since early February their work has also been covered in over 300 TV slots, over 900 radio interviews, over 2,900 newspaper articles, over 9,500 pieces of online news, over 7,000 international media hits, and over 1 million social media interactions. This news has reached five continents with an aggregate readership of potentially 24 billion people!
While all of this was going on, other staff rapidly moved our complex teaching programmes online. At the height of lockdown, we were teaching more than 1,000 different classes online. We couriered almost 500 computers within New Zealand and overseas to people who lacked the devices they needed to work or study at a distance.
Although many of our students returned home during lockdown, we provided pastoral care to more than 1,500 who chose to remain in our residential colleges or in our Uniflats in North Dunedin. We also kept a caring eye on the thousands of other students who remained in residence in flats around the campus as well as maintaining contact with our international students who were stranded offshore.
In consultation with OUSA, we agreed to give students a five-mark grade bump at the end of Semester 1. Although our commitment to the grade bump was undoubtedly reassuring to students when they were preparing for their exams,
their grades were higher prior to the bump than they were in Semester 1 last year. Furthermore, despite the disruption in their learning environment and our extension of the withdrawal deadline, student attrition was no different from last year and our residential colleges have remained over 98 per cent full.
On a personal level, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the livelihoods of many of our students’ families. In some instances both parents (and sometimes both grandparents) have been made redundant. In response to this high level of need, we established a student support fund, Pūtea Tautoko. This fund comprises both Government support, University support, and generous donations from staff and alumni. To date, we have given out more than $3 million in support to hundreds of students. We suspect that this level of need will continue in 2021.
“Our experience this year has underscored the valuable contribution that this University can make to the world in which we live. Going forward, we will continue to be guided by our motto: Sapere Aude, Dare to be Wise.”
One uniquely-Otago approach to decision-making this year was the inclusion of our student president, Mr Jack Manning, on our senior leadership team. Beginning in March, Jack joined the Emergency Management Team during our daily Zoom huddles. His input and the input of his OUSA Executive was extremely valuable, allowing us to keep students at the centre of our thinking at all times.
We have learned many important lessons this year. For example, we have learned that our students are firmly committed to an on-campus, in-person learning environment. Some of our first-year students arrived on the doorstep of their colleges at midnight as soon as they were able to return after lockdown.
We have also learned to trust ourselves. Many of the extremely difficult decisions that we have made over the last five years paid off in response to COVID-19. Our new professional staff structure allowed us to work as a single co-ordinated organisation during lockdown and beyond. By way of example, between 26 March and 15 May 2020, AskOtago handled almost 49,000 contacts by phone or email. They provided the single source of truth – a truth that was updated multiple times each day.
Additionally, the fact that we had already cut our cloth to fit our income meant that we entered the pandemic in a strong financial position. Finally, the fact that we have long resisted Government pressure to remove or increase our cap on international student numbers has meant that we are not nearly as exposed to the international market as our counterparts in this part of the world.
Taken together, all of these decisions mean that while the pandemic has placed us under some pressure, we are not contemplating the kind of COVID-related redundancies that many universities in New Zealand and around the world are announcing now.
Finally, our experience this year has underscored the valuable contribution that this University can make to the world in which we live. Going forward, we will continue to be guided by our motto: Sapere Aude, Dare to be Wise. We will continue to assist where we can in the fight against COVID-19 and we look forward to contributing to New Zealand’s recovery. We will also continue to conduct world-class research across the University, using the outcome of that research to solve other big challenges facing our communities, our country, and the rest of the world. Most importantly, we will continue to inspire the young minds who join us every year in our unique living and learning environment.
Some of you will be aware that my second term as Vice-Chancellor comes to an end next year. As one door closes, another one opens. In April, I will take up the role of Vice-Chancellor at Curtin University in Perth, Australia. This decision is obviously bittersweet. I look forward to reflecting on my time at Otago in my final message in the Otago Magazine in March.
Noho ora mai
Professor Harlene Hayne