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Vice-chancellor Prof Harlene Hayne told yesterday's university council meeting student numbers rose by the narrowest of margins on last year, climbing by 0.1% to 17,707 equivalent-full-time students (Efts), which was ''fantastic'' news.
The increase follows three successive years of declining numbers, with enrolments dropping from a peak of 19,918 Efts at the end of 2010 to 18,875 Efts at the end of last year.
The university typically gains a further 900 to 950 Efts between now and the end of the year.
The increase was driven by a 119 Efts (3.2%) increase in first-year enrolments, which included ''significant'' rises in the number of Maori and Pacific students starting studies.
There were 48 Efts more postgraduate enrolments (up 1.8%), which offset a small drop in returning undergraduate and international students.
''With demand for first-year places at Otago continuing to outstrip the number of places available in residential colleges, a key enabler of this year's growth has been an investment in additional college places for this year,'' Prof Hayne said.
This included the opening of the university's new Te Rangi Hiroa College, in Castle St, and new spaces at other colleges.
The increase showed the introduction of stricter entry criteria and tighter academic progress provisions in 2011 was the ''correct call''.
''While those 2011 decisions have caused some short-term enrolment reductions, this year's figures show that these effects have largely worked their way through the system.
''Thanks in part to these changes, the academic performance of Otago's student cohort is now, according to the Tertiary Education Commission's figures, the highest of any New Zealand university.''
Council member Judge Oke Blaikie was full of praise, saying it was ''outstanding'' 85.8% of first-year students were from beyond Dunedin, a record high.
''That must be as a result of some really remarkable work done by alumni ... and the publicity arm of the university.''
Otago Chamber of Commerce chief executive John Christie said having university numbers steady was welcome news for Dunedin businesses.
It also boded well for the university's plans to spend more than $600 million on infrastructure, Mr Christie said.
It was not all good news at the council meeting, with Prof Hayne reporting full-fee international enrolments were down by 45 (3.7%) to 1191 Efts.
The drop was ''largely'' due to the conclusion of contracts with Malaysia to provide healthcare training and the pipeline effect of fewer international students at New Zealand high schools.
However, enrolments from a number of important markets, notably China, were up on the corresponding time last year.
The overall increase was below the 1.7% increase in student numbers forecast by the university in its budget for this year, which was passed last November.
University director of planning and funding David Thomson in setting the forecast noted the university was ''in a period which is amongst the most difficult time in at least two decades in which to forecast with confidence''.