Editorial: Auckland aims to be a great university

University of Auckland is at 165 on the latest Times Higher Education table. Photo / Dean Purcell
University of Auckland is at 165 on the latest Times Higher Education table. Photo / Dean Purcell

Congratulations to the University of Auckland and to the companies and other benefactors who have contributed $152 million to its bid to raise twice that figure in a newly announced effort to become a great university. New Zealand's eight universities all rank among the top 600 in the world. Auckland is the highest of them, at 165 on the latest Times Higher Education table, followed by Otago in the 201-250 range. Those standings might be considered good enough for a country of New Zealand's size but we can - and must - aspire to much better.

Our economy has been performing better than most for the past few years. The country has become a magnet for migrants and investment, which has its downside in housing affordability. The fact that Auckland's house prices are among the highest in the world as a proportion of incomes speaks volumes for the attraction of the country's largest city and the country's need to lift per-capita incomes. With a growing population and an economy that has proved resilient through several international shocks and commodity cycles now, it is time to aim high.

Announcing its fundraising campaign on Friday night, the university's vice chancellor, Stuart McCutcheon, said it was seeking the support of donors and alumni "to create a very special institution for New Zealand". The fund would be used to research projects, academic fellowships, staff appointments and student scholarships, all aligned with a number of broad practical projects. They include earthquake-proofing of cities and old buildings, improving cancer survival rates and building an even stronger economy.

While projects such as those will appeal to New Zealand's pragmatism and help attract endowments from industry and wealthy individuals, a world-class university is built on much more than engineering, medicine and economics. Auckland needs to infuse all its faculties with the ambition and the resources to attract leading thinkers, writers and researchers in their fields. This may mean paying them more than existing staff and removing staff who are not enhancing the university's international standing.

It is modelling its project-based fundraising on universities as well known as Stanford, Harvard and Cambridge. They were great universities before they developed an edge in modern technology. Auckland's campaign is to be guided by four big questions: besides how to earthquake proof New Zealand, it is asking how to prepare students for work in the 21st century, how to redefine old age and how to "build a robust modern economy". While answers to all of them have applications outside New Zealand, they sound like their primary focus is inward.

New Zealand universities already attract large numbers of overseas students, generating more than $1 billion annually and helping "export education" to become a larger earner for the country than wine or seafood. If "building a more robust economy" means diversifying from commodity exports, services such as education deserve as much attention as manufactured goods.

Taxpayers are providing plenty of tertiary education in all regions of New Zealand. Among our eight universities, one should be capable of matching the best in Australia and making its presence felt in the English-speaking world. Auckland should be up there.

- NZ Herald

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