Jolting any university complacency

Whatever the spin from the University of Otago, the sudden drop in first-year domestic student numbers is a shock.

The fall of 350 full-time equivalents (Efts) equates to nearly 10% over last year.

It reverses the previous year's first-year domestic increase of 119 (3.2%).

Because health science numbers are holding up, this means commerce, humanities and sciences are being hit significantly.

Overall, the roll decline compared with March last year is 469 to 17,172, against a budgeted prediction of an increase of towards 200.

Vice-chancellor Harlene Hayne might say projected shortfall in income is less than 1% of the total budget.

But the university is a huge organisation and 1% represents about $6 million.

That is a lot of money to be found when so much expenditure is fixed and when staff costs are 61% of the budget.

Remember, too, the university had actually budgeted on a 1% increase in roll, not what at this stage is a 2.7% decrease.

The university might also claim the decline does not mean programmes or jobs are at risk, but the university late last year warned, despite ''major cost-cutting'', it was unable to meet surplus targets for 2015.

The surpluses were required to accumulate funds for its more than $600 million building programme.

Unless first-year numbers can bounce back quickly, pressure on jobs and positions across the organisation will mount.

Job cuts might prove to be nothing like the magnitude endured by post-quake University of Canterbury (where most areas other than engineering were badly affected), but falling rolls will mean fewer staff.

The university has made great play of the importance of quality rather than quantity, and no-one should disagree with that emphasis.

Standards were tightened in 2011, and the surprising numbers missing out on tougher University Entrance requirements last year meant many prospective students failed to go to university.

That accounts for some of the late withdrawals from colleges.

The university has, as well, in its claims about attracting quality said it counted 80 school duxes among this year's intake.

When there are about 340 secondary schools and many have co-duxes, that figure, while healthy, is not as impressive as on first sight.

It is fair, as the university has, to note the impact of a relatively healthy job market and a smaller year 13 cohort in 2014.

But the feeling is widespread around the campus that the university has been caught on the back foot.

It seems many able students, the very ones the university is most keen on, also pulled out late, being drawn to other universities.

Victoria, Wellington, has been particularly active, boosting its residential capacity for first-years and offering lots of scholarships.

The amounts involved, often $1000 or $2000, might in the scheme of course fees and college costs of $13,000-plus be small.

But they sent positive messages to students that they were wanted.

Late withdrawals from such students might also help explain why some popular colleges that have not had vacancies for decades suddenly found themselves with empty rooms.

The University of Otago still has major advantages over Canterbury, Victoria and Auckland through its campus life, mostly for the better even if occasionally for the worse.

And despite the expense of airfares to and from Dunedin, the availability and costs of flats is far higher in the northern centres.

It is a pity students and parents do not look further ahead because the housing pressure in Christchurch, inner Wellington and Auckland is dire.

This big drop in Dunedin first-year numbers will flow through, putting acute pressure on numbers for the next three years.

Without doubt, the university in response will be doing all it can to turn around this year's fall.

Any complacency has been well and truly jolted.

Amid this setback - hopefully a temporary blip - for the university and thus Dunedin as well, there are two bright signs.

Although international full-fee enrolments have been slipping and are down 5% to 1125, first-year international Efts are up 26, auguring better news for subsequent years.

Valuable post-graduate enrolments, meanwhile, have risen 90 Efts to 2728.

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