The University of Otago (Photo: Supplied)

150 years on, Dunedin is still the tertiary education capital of New Zealand

It’s as true now as it ever has been: nowhere else offers an education experience like that of Dunedin. But rather than resting on their laurels, the University of Otago and Otago Polytechnic have plans to make the city an even more inspiring place for students.

From high in the summit beyond Pine Hill on Dunedin’s northernmost border, the Water of Leith – the Ōwheo – runs towards the sea. Its journey takes it past the Botanic Gardens, where it turns toward the city, rushing first south and then east, flowing through the heart of the University of Otago campus, skirting the Otago Polytechnic before emptying itself into Otago Harbour. The Leith is the ribbon tying together the tertiary education district, Dunedin’s centre of learning for more than 150 years.

As the new academic year approaches, the city’s students have yet to fill Dunedin. The streets around the Leith, full of student flats, are now quiet; the lecture halls, libraries and labs are empty. While summer is a chance for the permanent residents to draw breath as most of the nearly 30,000 students leave, the “town and gown” relationship fostered by the University of Otago and the Dunedin City Council is essential part of the city’s identity and economy. The students are a vital part of Dunedin’s social fabric.

“The university is the largest business in town, so of course we are heavily integrated in the community,” says The University of Otago’s vice chancellor, Professor Harlene Hayne. “We’re unique in New Zealand in having such a massive footprint in the town, and we make a very large contribution – close to $2 billion – into the economy. We consider ourselves to be a really integral part of the business community.”

For many of the students who spend those formative years in Dunedin, the city holds a special place in their lives. Thanks in large part to its central city location – and the fact that most students live within a handful of blocks around campus – studying in Dunedin offers a student experience that is utterly unique among New Zealand universities. That’s particularly true of students moving into one of the university’s 14 residential colleges when they arrive in first year.

“Being a resident in one of these colleges, it’s a huge identity for our students, and it forms the foundational relationships that they will have for the rest of their time here, and often for the rest of their lives,” says Hayne.

University of Otago vice chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne (Photo: Supplied)

In return, its students tend to be fiercely loyal, almost from the day they arrive, says Professor Richard Blaikie, deputy vice chancellor research and enterprise. And nowhere is it more visible than on Sports Day, a highlight of the annual orientation week.

“These kids who have only met each other three days beforehand, they gather on a sports field and already they’re fiercely tribal. And that that tribal nature becomes part of who they are.”

Tradition plays a major role in university life, and Blaikie compares the student environment to Cambridge University in England where he studied. The history and traditions of universities like Cambridge and Otago have a powerful role in building a sense of community around the institution.

“They really gather the cultural, social and intellectual life of the university and they concentrate it there. At Otago, our version of collegiate life is much better in that the experience is very egalitarian,” he says.

That shared sense of community is special to the University of Otago experience, says Michaela Waite-Harvey, 2021 president of OUSA, the university’s student association. “Nowhere else in New Zealand do you get a bunch of 20-something-year-olds living and studying within the same 2km radius. It’s safe to say the student experience at Otago is unparalleled to any other university.“‘

In 2013 The Huffington Post ranked Otago among the 15 most beautiful campuses in the world, alongside Aarhus University in Denmark and the UK’s Cambridge and Oxford. But it’s not just the campus, with its gothic clock tower on the grassy banks of the Leith, that the students gravitate to – it’s the city, and the region’s, complete package that draws young people from across the country.

“Otago itself provides a lot for students; you can go to the beach one weekend to surf and then go skiing the next at Wānaka,” says Waite-Harvey. “Dunedin as a city is as vibrant as any other and half the size, with plenty of markets, music and museums.”

But the traditions and history of the University of Otago aren’t only defined by its place as New Zealand’s first university. Its modern reputation – and its impressive roster of alumni – are just as important for students like her.

“For me personally, it’s also important to recognise the strong history of student activism at Otago. The OUSA has produced three currently sitting Labour MPs and that’s no small feat.”

Orientation Week at the University of Otago (Photo: Supplied)

There’s a new buzz about Dunedin – not just in the student precinct, but throughout the city. The Dunedin startup scene is growing fast, and the city’s education providers are adapting to the challenge of training students who want to be part of it.

At the centre of the city’s future is the new $1.4 billion Dunedin Hospital – the biggest ever to be built in New Zealand and the country’s first “digital hospital”. Its construction, and the modernisation of the local health system of which the hospital will be the centrepiece, is a huge opportunity for both the university and the polytechnic.

There’s excitement about the city’s new image and its potential future, says Otago Polytechnic CEO Megan Gibbons. “It’s an old city but it’s losing some of its conservative feel,” she says.

Some of the most exciting changes are coming from the rapidly growing tech sector, driven by world-leading Dunedin-based businesses like Animation Research, ADInstruments and Education Perfect.

Though the tech community is concentrated in the historic Warehouse Precinct on the other side of the central city, its links with both the polytechnic and university are strong. There’s a slew of mentoring, internship and entrepreneurial programmes, like the annual Audacious student startup challenge, connecting all three.

The most ambitious of all these schemes is CODE, the government-backed Centre of Digital Excellence, established in 2019 with the aim of creating a $1 billion local video game industry in the next 10 years. Worldwide, video game revenues are projected to reach $300 billion by 2023 and CODE itself likens the opportunities for Dunedin to a second gold rush. But game development isn’t just about creating the next Among Us or Animal Crossing. As Gibbons points out, it’s a skillset with many applications.

“Businesses are asking ‘how do we use the methodology used in gaming to infiltrate beyond just gaming? What else can it go into? It can be simulation, it can be education. Can it be people, learning how a business might work through a gaming situation? That scenario-based learning is really what gaming is.”

Both the polytechnic and university have created new curricula to help more students into game development. Enterprise Dunedin and CODE have partnered with international gaming hubs like Shanghai, Japan, the UK and Sweden are already creating opportunities. In September 2020, Otago Polytechnic announced a partnership to develop courses in collaboration with Swedish-based FutureGames, which last year was ranked the second-best game development school in the world. The University of Otago, meanwhile, has announced it will pilot game development and game studies as education pathways in 2021.

Otago Polytechnic CEO Megan Gibbons (Photo: supplied)

Like Gibbons, the University of Otago’s professor Blaikie sees a plethora of career opportunities for students who graduate from these courses. Looking just at Dunedin, he points to the new all-digital hospital and to local success story ADInstruments, which creates tools for life sciences research, as places where game development could blossom into “medical technology development, educational technology development, med-ed tech”. The list goes on.

“One thing I know is that some bright young person will come in and do something that we haven’t even thought about yet, and create new opportunities and new businesses,” Blaikie says.

“You just need to get the ecosystem right. And it is, it’s pretty much spot on here at the moment. Then our job is to stand back and watch the magic.”

Someone who’s particularly excited about the rise of the gaming industry is Gibbons, who has long seen polytechnics struggle to emerge from under a narrow perception of what “vocational training” means. Dunedin’s changing image is a chance to change that understanding of the role of polytechnics too.

“We really need to challenge the perception that vocational education is about trades training. It’s about training that helps people get into employment, and have a career, a vocation,” she says.

Encouraging school leavers see the job opportunities offered by polytechnic training is key to changing perceptions, she says, but some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations can help too.

“When school leavers understand what they could be earning it can be a real eye opener. If you go and train to be a builder, within five years of graduation you can be earning a quarter of a million dollars if you’ve got your own business.”

It’s not just about what graduates could earn, but the size of the debt they’ll leave with. Under the government’s Targeted Training and Apprenticeship Fund (TTAF), announced in the wake of Covid-19, people studying or training for certain high-demand industries will have their fees fully waived until December 2022, potentially allowing them to graduate completely debt-free.

“We see our role at Otago Polytechnic as two-fold in the coming years: contributing to the future of vocational education in New Zealand, and playing a part in the country’s economic recovery.”

Among the TTAF courses are a number of diplomas in construction trades and engineering technology, answering a need that has only become more acute since the closure of our borders. Those job opportunities are nationwide, but Gibbons is quick to point to the estimated 1,000 construction workers who will be required for the Dunedin Hospital rebuild at its peak. “It’s good news for people thinking about coming to Otago because they know they’re going to be needed.”

It appears the government agrees, and in July 2020 the Otago Polytechnic secured $31.7 million in project funding to build a new Trade Training Centre as one of the government’s “shovel-ready” projects, aimed at stimulating and supporting economic activity in the city and region.

Otago Polytechnic (Photo: Supplied)

Alongside courses aimed at school leavers and more mature learners looking to retrain, a major plank of the polytechnic’s educational offering is ongoing education for those already in work. It offers a range of “bite-sized” microcredential programmes that are developed alongside industry, enabling learners the opportunity to obtain career-relevant skills.

Capable New Zealand, a school within Otago Polytechnic, recognises that many professionals have an immense amount of workplace knowledge and skill, but may not have the qualifications to match. Its assessment methods measure a person’s existing capability, gained through years of work and life experience, against an actual qualification and gives academic credit for what they already know.

For many adult learners, the less pressurised environment of a polytechnic appeals – especially if it’s been a long time since they were last in an educational setting. Charlotte Flaherty left a job with Dunedin City Council to retrain as a mechanical engineer, and says Otago Polytechnic made it easy to transition back into learning.

“The teaching was really accessible – aimed at overcoming language barriers and the ‘newness’ of a return to study that mature students experience. I immediately felt I fitted in,” Flaherty says.

Part of Otago Polytechnic’s role is helping graduates get on-the-job experience, and Flaherty says her lecturers had excellent relationships with businesses in the city. In her second year she interned with Stantec, a global engineering consultancy specialising in water, transport and urban design issues, and started a full-time job there within two weeks of finishing her Bachelor of Engineering Technology degree.

Flaherty was far from alone in deciding to stay in the city. “Almost everybody in my year went straight into engineering employment in Dunedin after graduation,” she says.

Traditionally, many of Dunedin’s students have left the city once they completed their degree. But the city is increasingly more attractive to young professionals and the university supports initiatives that encourage graduates to make Dunedin their permanent home.

Says Hayne: “I think a lot of our students would like to stay – and the more employment opportunities we have for them, the happier we would be.”

While emerging sectors such as video gaming have improved the city’s CV, initiatives like internship programme JobDUN are connecting graduates with businesses, with the aim of keeping talent in the city.

After 11 years in operation, and despite the challenges of Covid-19, JobDUN is still getting strong interest and support from the local business community, according to Chanel O’Brien, business developer advisor at Enterprise Dunedin, which operates the programme.

The University of Otago in winter (Photo: supplied)

The University of Otago was founded in 1869. The first classes were held in July of 1871, and in August of 1871 –  less than about six weeks after the doors were first opened to students – the council voted to admit women, becoming the first university in Australasia where women could study.

“So from our very inception, it’s been a place where women come to succeed,” says vice-chancellor Hayne.

Now, getting more women into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers – including video game development – is also a university priority. The homebase of nationally recognised Covid-19 experts like Michael Baker and Ayesha Verrall, the University of Otago is the most science-intense tertiary institution in the country. And with a science undergraduate cohort of just over 60% women, Hayne says Otago is “naturally a place for bright young women to come and do well in sciences”.

No matter what background a student comes from, or what demographic box they can tick, coming to Dunedin to study means joining one great community, she says.

“This is a place where they come to study history or law or accounting, but the most important thing that they do is they become part of a student community here. It’s what brings students to Dunedin, it’s what keeps them here, and it’s what makes them such loyal alumni.

“When they look back on their time in Dunedin, they’ll obviously recall some of the great teachers they had, but first and foremost they’ll recall the amazing relationships they developed while they were here.”




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