I have meandered through the Otago University campus a couple of times recently; it is the same but different to the campus I attended a lifetime or two ago. But I find it a very happy experience. The feeling I have of wandering around the university today must be similar to the feeling that people find when they return to their hometown to find it has progressed positively while still retaining the essence and familiarity of a hometown.
The Otago University campus has a wonderful muti-generational atmosphere. It blends dignified respect for its heritage buildings with youthful boldness in its modern architecture; adapted villas sit just along the pathway from purpose-built laboratories; stone and cement infrastructure is softened by the grassed terraces that embrace the banks of the babbling Leith river. There is a positive vibe and the buildings and grounds are beautifully maintained.
All very well to have a beautiful campus, but does it do the job? is it a great educator? The revised 25th edition of the World list of Universities and Higher Education facilities lists 16,000 such institutions in 180 countries. But for truly international assessment standards purposes, the QS TopUniversity lists 4284 Universities. The rankings are based on surveys of 76,000 academics and 44,000 employers. According to the QS 2015 rankings Otago University, at #173, sits comfortably within the top 5% of the QS TopUniversities list. Now that is not in the top 1% of ivy leagues like Harvard or Princeton, or the Royal and Ancients of Oxford and Cambridge, but it is still in the same academic conversations as Dartmouth or Michigan State Universities in USA or University of Bath in the Uk, Stockholm University, the University of Bern and the University of Barcelona. Given our geographic isolation from the major academic resources of the planet, that is an achievement. Within that overall score Otago ranks a very impressive #8 in the world for dentistry sitting between Kings College of London at 7 and Harvard at 9 .
Beyond that, Otago is acknowledged as New Zealand’s leading research university, often featuring on the international news for the quality of its achievements. As a born and bred Dunedin resident I have to say I am more than happy with that status and, in fact, quite proud of the efforts of those who have administered the University over the decades. They have done great credit to the City’s founders who had the foresight to establish New Zealand’s first university here in Dunedin.
The University is self managed and regulated. They have around 4,000 staff, just over half of who are ‘general’ staff managing the general operations, the bureaucracy, the buildings and property; they even have their own security staff. This is indeed a village within, containing around 20% of Dunedin’s population. The village is overseen by a Council of 18 including the Chancellor. Members are a 50/50 mixture of appointments and elected representatives. Three are elected by academic staff, one by general staff, two by the students and three by the Court of Convocation (graduates of Otago University). The other 9 are appointments made by the Ministry, the City Council, the University on consultation with the central organisation of employers and the central organisation of workers; and the university appoints its Chancellor and Vice Chancellor.
It sounds at first like a ‘jobs for the boys’ arrangement, but when you walk through the campus and examine the University’s academic status, what can you say but ‘it works’.
What would Dunedin be without this university? Much the poorer we would have to concede. Possibly to say we would be nationally and internationally irrelevant would not be too harsh. Why is it then that this village within is globally so successful yet the city without just muddles along?
Start at the top. It always starts at the top. Ask any political party, any business, any organisation at all. I would think that the University Council holds significantly more status than the Dunedin City Council. The Vice Chancellor and Chancellor positions are more respected in our community than the mayor and deputy mayor of the City Council. And that just should not be the case. People do not fire off letters to the editor challenging the intelligence, integrity or professionalism of the Chancellor of the University, but the current Mayor’s performance, or lack of, is a regular subject in those columns. People just do not seem to respect that office any more.
At the local election, everyone has a given number of boxes to tick; most voters have absolutely no idea whether the person they tick is the best qualified to do the job, or even qualified at all. They may recognise or even know one or two candidates at some level, but they have to tick fifteen names. Well they don’t have to tick them all but it is their democratic right and duty. So if truth be known, if you vaguely recognise a name, or think it is familiar from somewhere, then it often just gets a tick. This is totally random democracy. Anyone reviewing that system of democracy would conclude it is doomed to fail. And, to be frank, fail it does.
If we took the lead from the University and had a system that ensured a balanced council representing the interests of all key groups and a balance of skill sets and experience then we might have a council made up of:
- one Councillor appointed by the members of the Otago manufacturers association;
- one appointed by the members of the Otago retailers association;
- two appointed by the members of the combined workers’ representative organisations of Dunedin;
- one appointed by the combined senior citizens associations;
- one appointed by the University of Otago;
- one appointed by each of the combined secondary and primary school teacher/parents associations;
- one appointed by the emergency relief organisations of Dunedin and
- one elected by residents of each of five districts in Dunedin: West Dunedin, South Dunedin, North Dunedin, East Dunedin and Rural.
- Then we would separately elect the Mayor, a largely honorary, figurehead position, to chair the Council meetings and host visiting dignitaries. Council would appoint their own deputy chair.
At least then we would be electing / appointing people who truly represent the critical sectors of our community who provide the skill sets that are needed to drive a city forward. Its got to beat the random ticking and electing of people about whose administrative skills we know little or nothing..
At least we probably would not have a Council forgetting to sweep up the autumn leaves before the winter rains washes them into the drains, causing flooding, and then having a Mayor running around town squawking ‘the end is nigh, the end is nigh; oh woe is us the end is nigh’.