Ache over Otago's dental school

By Vaughan Elder

Open wide and say 'there's no government money to fund dental school expansion'. Photo / Thinkstock
Open wide and say 'there's no government money to fund dental school expansion'. Photo / Thinkstock

The Government does not, as a rule, invest in university assets and the University of Otago has a strong enough balance sheet to build a new dental school itself, Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce says.

The university has this week accepted, after chasing the Government for a decade to help fund a new dental school, it will have to pay for the $50 million to $100 million project itself.

The plan to build a new dental school, which if approved would be the university's most expensive capital project, was revealed in the Otago Daily Times last month.

Faculty of Dentistry Dean Prof Greg Seymour said the existing facility no longer met the "requirements of dentistry of the 21st century".

Speaking to Radio New Zealand this week, university vice-chancellor Prof Harlene Hayne said the Government, during the past decade, had declined a number of requests to help fund the project and it had become clear the university would have to go it alone.

Speaking about the time it had taken to get to this point, she said: "In some ways, we are frustrated as well. If I had a magic wand I'd build the dental school tomorrow; unfortunately, I don't have a magic wand and I don't have a limitless chequebook.

"What I have to make sure is that every dollar that is spent on a potential dental school is spent in the best way possible."

Last night, Mr Joyce said the Government, as a general rule, did not invest in university assets, although it might help Lincoln and Canterbury Universities in the wake of the earthquakes.

"At the end of the day, this is what universities do. They invest in assets. And in the case of Otago, they have a very strong balance sheet.

"They have $1.4 billion on the books. I'd say they are more than capable of making the investment themselves.

"That is probably why governments have not contributed over the years."

Given other universities would probably also like to have a dental school, it was a core business for Otago and therefore a priority, he said.

Prof Hayne told Radio New Zealand it could take five years to build a new facility and it was still unclear whether the existing building would be refurbished and added to, or a new dental building built nearby and the old building used for another department.

That differed from comments by Prof Seymour, who said last month a new clinical facility would be built in the car park of the present dental school in Great King St and once it was built, the old building, which would be used for research and lectures, would be refurbished.

New Zealand Dental Association president Geoff Lingard said it was "short-sighted" of the Government not to help pay for a new dental school to replace the "outdated" and "over-crowded" existing facility.

The school, as the only dental training facility in New Zealand, was "critical" to dentistry in the country, Mr Lingard said.

He still believed the university should have started the project earlier, but understood it involved a large amount of money and that the university would have "naturally anticipated a degree of Government support".

- Otago Daily Times

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