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The month of December is one of the best times to experience the beauty and grandeur of the University of Otago campus.
With students having largely departed, an almost profound silence descends over this sprawling area. Castle St looks abandoned with the occasional overloaded wheelie bin hovering precariously on the edge of the footpath and couches in various states of decomposition languishing on empty porches and section fronts. Slivers of glass shine on the road’s edge, remnants of final-year celebrations.
Abandoned shoes hang from overhead power wires.
Since its inception in 1869 Otago University has continued to grow, at no time more so than in the past 50 years. The magnificent and much photographed clock tower building stands in all its glory on the banks of the Water of Leith. Above the entrance to the archway intriguing gargoyles peer down, these being a common sight on Gothic buildings throughout Europe.
When I was a student at the university in the early 1970s, there were about 5000 students with that number now in the vicinity of 20,000. Most faculties have witnessed substantial growth during this period. In my time the Faculty of Law was located in what is now the Staff Club, a building of significant beauty overlooking the Leith. Now it towers many storeys high in the Richardson Building, providing spectacular city views.
While halls of residence remain popular for first-year students in particular, most gravitate early on to "flats" which are numerous as they are varied. Some having a dilapidated appearance, others modern and fresh. Overall, I would suggest the student experience now is very different in many respects from what it was 50 years ago, as, too, is the way the university is currently being administered.
Staff and students enjoyed considerable autonomy during this earlier period. The student body had independent funding for its activities and was not reliant on the university administration. This all changed a few years ago to the detriment in my view of the OUSA. A student’s grades are much more important now than they used to be.
We had the luxury of conducting exam postmortems at the Captain Cook Tavern, knowing that employment opportunities still beckoned, even if a mark was in the undistinguished category. Many interesting debates took place in the students union. At one stage there was a student "sit-in" at the registry building, arising from an objection to some aspect of the administration. There were frequent protests against the war in Vietnam and colourful characters, including poet James K. Baxter, readily expressed their views on the desirability of mixed flatting and other student topics. The Hyde St party is a central social event for today’s students, as too is the toga party.
The administration in recent years has been operating on a corporate model and some concerns have been expressed about bureaucratic overreach and the impact this is having on academic freedoms. The Education Act 1989 outlines the characteristic functions of a university in section 162(4), which includes "a role as a critic and conscience of society". The Education Amendment Act 1990, No 60 part XIV, section 161(2) states that "academic freedom in relation to an institution such as a university means the freedom of academic staff and students within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial and unpopular opinions".
All New Zealand universities, including Otago, are required to ensure that academics and staff have the greatest possible freedom to openly and without fear, express ideas and opinions with administrations actively supporting and facilitating this. A university needs to be a place open to a wide range of thoughts and ideas, enabling robust debate and exchange of views. Students likewise need to develop a capacity for critical thought.
The song Gaudeamus igitur is often sung at university graduation ceremonies. Old it might be, but the words are still relevant today in terms of where the universities’ priorities should be. Translations vary, but one verse contains the following:
"Long live the university!
Long live the profs!
Long live any student!
Long live any student whatsoever!
May they always be the best!"
- Joss Miller is a retired Dunedin lawyer.