In the pursuit of excellence

The University of Otago's impressive performance in the QS World University Rankings has confirmed what many already know - Dunedin is home to a world-class learning facility.

The School of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences was the top-ranked university department in New Zealand after placing seventh in the annual QS World University Rankings in the subject of sport and sport-related disciplines.

Physical education was not the only subject where Otago excelled. Anatomy, dentistry, archaeology and development studies all made the top 50 and seven other subjects made the top 100. The subject rankings are derived from a combination of factors including academic reputation, employer reputation and research citations. The assessment covers more than 4400 universities worldwide.

The School of Physical Education's international recognition will be somewhat bitter-sweet for the 44 academic and general staff who work at the school. It comes at a time when there is considerable uncertainty over the school's future. Staff have recently been offered voluntary redundancies because of financial struggles and falling student numbers.

A review of the school is to be carried out and will likely lead to staff cuts. Fulltime student numbers have dropped by more than a third in the past four years and the university cannot afford to carry the department in its current state.

It continues a worrying trend for some courses. Sixteen filltime equivalent jobs were cut from Otago's humanities division, again because of falling student numbers and poor financial performances.

Total equivalent fulltime student numbers have fallen in recent years, but a positive last year was an increase in first-year students and international full-fee enrolments.

Vice-chancellor Prof Harlene Hayne summed the situation up in 2016 when she said: ''Like all great universities, the University of Otago will continue our relentless pursuit of quality. We have no aspiration to be the biggest university in New Zealand, but we do have aspirations to be the best.''

There was a time when the University of Otago did not have to work too hard to attract students to its facility. Reputation was enough to see students from throughout New Zealand head south. It was a rite of passage for many young people to study at Otago, following in the footsteps of parents or siblings.

Otago rugby and netball teams used to benefit hugely as budding stars arrived for Dunedin's unique student experience. Professional sport, particularly rugby, means younger players are now being identified at school and contracted by Super franchises before they get a chance to make a decision about where, or if, they might attend university.

Like everything these days, competition for custom has increased and all businesses, not just the University of Otago, have to do more to entice people through their doors.

The university is certainly doing its bit to make itself an attractive option for students. It has approved multiple building projects and $215.725 million will be spent this year on projects such as the School of Dentistry, science precinct and music and theatre.

The university's teaching staff continue to top the country. The Prime Minister's supreme award for tertiary teaching has now gone to Otago for a fifth consecutive year.

Education has become a competitive business. Secondary schools are also vying to attract the best and brightest and some go to extreme lengths to ensure they get them. Favourable results in the World University rankings and ongoing investment in Otago's campus and staff will ensure it continues to rank among the best.

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