Students on Monday will become the first to take classes at the University of Waikato's new Tauranga campus, opening nearly a year ahead of schedule. More than a building, the $55 million facility is a sign of the area's transformation, according to local leaders. Bay of Plenty Times Weekend reporter Dawn Picken explores the institution's past, present and future.

About 100 people attended the blessing of the new campus. Photo / George Novak
About 100 people attended the blessing of the new campus. Photo / George Novak

Karakia - Blessing

It's 5.30 am Wednesday near Durham St as a group of people gather in front of the University of Waikato's Tauranga campus. A supermoon, about as close to Earth as it'll ever come, shines above the crowd; a work light illuminates a tall, draped shape.

A kaumatua chants in te reo while two men remove black fabric to reveal a pouwhenua - a wooden carving called Te Toka a Tirikawa. More chanting and songs precede the shuffle of more than 100 pairs of feet into the building.

Once inside, we see not only more art and architecture, but also evidence additional work needs done: boxes are stacked one level below, construction cones and dust remain, along with equipment to shift heavy loads.

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The karakia concludes inside Te Manawaroa meeting room, where hongi and handshakes follow. Waikato University Professor and kaumātua Tom Roa addresses those encircling the space.

Later, a Ngai Te Rangi spokesman would tell attendees at a Bongard Centre breakfast, "This whare is for the students of the world."

Leah Owen will be one of the first students to study at the University of Waikato's new Tauranga CBD campus. Photo / Andrew Warner
Leah Owen will be one of the first students to study at the University of Waikato's new Tauranga CBD campus. Photo / Andrew Warner

Study-Ready

Anaru Palmer and Leah Owen, who were head boy and girl of Tauranga Boys' and Tauranga Girls' colleges last year, will both stay in the city to study at the campus.

Owen has enrolled in a Bachelor of Social Sciences majoring in psychology, while Palmer will be among the first cohort of students in Te Tohu Paetahi - a one-year diploma in te reo Māori taught as a full immersion programme.

"Excited is an understatement," Owen told the Bay of Plenty Times earlier this week.

"I am over the moon there is actually a campus here. I can't wait to get started."

Owen said she chose to study locally to save on accommodation costs and to be able to keep her part-time job. "It was a no-brainer. It made sense," she said.

Initially, Palmer was considering a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Law at Waikato's Hamilton campus, but changed his mind after discovering the full immersion programme was available at the Tauranga campus.

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University staff said 950 people had enrolled at the Tauranga campus since last Monday, up 31 per cent from the same time last year. Enrolments are expected to continue rising.

If future projections pan out, Palmer and Owen could be joined by about 1800 students, or 1500 full-time equivalents, within five years.

The most popular areas of study so far were degrees in teaching, business, social sciences, science and social work.

About 40 Tauranga-based PhD students have enrolled in a range of subjects from Education to Marine Science.

Tauranga native Candra Pullon was last year's University of Waikato student union president and served on the campus development committee.

She said her peers were excited and appreciative to have a place in Tauranga.

"I know co-ordinating all the pieces was a big project, but the students are really looking forward to being able to use this campus ... the Hamilton students as well are already talking about how they can come over and spend a day at the beach. I'm sure the campus will be well-utilised."

Pullon said the project had taken a giant leap from when she first saw it last August.

"There were steel poles in the floor, so to come and see it and all the artwork makes it really real."

The new University of Waikato Campus. Photo / George Novak
The new University of Waikato Campus. Photo / George Novak

The Space

Architects from Jasmax designed the campus with two buildings adjoined by a central atrium.

It features collaborative areas, customisable teaching spaces, a 200-seat lecture theatre, multi-function space, 24-hour computer lab, cafe, commercial kitchen and noho centre with sleeping facilities.

Jasmax principal Neil Martin said taking his team to Huria Marae three years ago laid the foundation for the project.

"The stories and the camaraderie we heard about - we hope that's embedded in the building."

Hawkins Construction started on the campus in June, 2017.

Project director Roy Lehndorf told a group at the post-blessing breakfast Wednesday his team still had a massive workload.

"We've got 100 guys on site, and about 10,000 hours to go, putting the final touches on the building."

Greenstone Group was project manager.

The building will include a Research and Innovation Centre focused on business activity.

The campus will also continue hosting research stations and centres of excellence including the Coastal Marine Field Station and the University of Waikato Adams Centre for High Performance, a gym and research space.

Student Housing Struggle

The Bay of Plenty Times reported Wednesday some students were struggling to find a place to live. Tauranga Rentals owner Dan Lusby said he was "drowning in applications" and had no idea how new students coming to the city would find accommodation.

The University of Waikato leased two apartment blocks towards the end of last year - Durham Mews Apartments and Mayfair Court Apartments - to help accommodate the influx of students expected when the new Tauranga campus opens.

The apartments were designed to accommodate 55 students the next two years. The University is also providing one, $8000 accommodation scholarship at Mayfair Court.

Waikato staff report students are staying in a wide range of accommodation, from remaining at home with their families, flatting and homestays.

Figures from Trade Me revealed Tauranga was the third-most expensive city in the country for rentals, with median rent at $500 per week in January.

That's a 43 per cent lift in five years, from $350 in January 2014.

A spokeswoman earlier this week said there was still some accommodation available in the university's apartments.

University of Waikato Professor Lynda Johnston has relocated from Hamilton to Tauranga. Photo / Supplied
University of Waikato Professor Lynda Johnston has relocated from Hamilton to Tauranga. Photo / Supplied

Working on Campus

Thirty-one general staff are employed at the new facility, joining 50 academic staff, 36 of whom will travel from Hamilton.

Geography professor Lynda Johnston will conduct research this term and support staff in programme development.

Though she enjoyed Hamilton, Johnston is happy to relocate to the Bay.

"It feels like a real privilege to be part of the university over here. We're really reaching out to different communities. Students who want to stay at their family home can stay and still join the university. We're relatively small, quite nimble and able to adjust to people's learning needs."

Johnston said she wants to work with colleagues to strengthen what the institution offers communities in the Bay.

"It's great to see student numbers increasing. We're really committed to making a difference here in Tauranga."

Partners

Campus development has been supported by key funders: Tauranga City Council gifted land worth around $5 million (to be transferred to the University after successful completion of the project); Bay of Plenty Regional Council kicked in $15m and the Tauranga Energy Consumer Trust contributed $15m. The University funded the remaining $25m.

The University of Waikato has had a presence in the Bay since the 1990s, via a partnership with then-Bay of Plenty Polytechnic (now Toi Ohomai) and Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi, which shared its facilities.

Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi chief executive, professor Wiremu Doherty said partnerships in tertiary education have become increasingly important in an age of change.

"The facility, the betterment of it is going to be for our students, our region, all those who want to grow in their particular pathway in tertiary education."

He said of University leaders, "We have whanau connections, so regardless of where the relationship goes, we're gonna be joined at the hip."

Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology Executive Director: Corporate Services Anthony Robertson said collaboration provides students the best opportunities to grow future careers, and the institute is proud of the relationship it had developed with the university.

"We're continuing with our pathway programmes and looking at potential development of joint programmes that we can offer together.

"We're looking at research initiatives together and we've got a couple of staff teaching on University of Waikato programmes."

In December, University of Waikato staff who had been based at Toi Ohomai's Windermere Campus swapped places with Toi Ohomai employees who worked at the Bongard Centre in the CBD.

The move allowed Toi Ohomai to consolidate all students and staff at Windermere, where the University had shared Toi Ohomai's facilities.

Robertson said though classrooms would move from the CBD, the polytechnic was still connected to the city.

"We will continue to support local events and partner with iwi and industry to deliver innovative education for the region.

"As members of the Bay of Plenty Tertiary Education Partnership, Toi Ohomai, the University of Waikato and Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi work together to ensure the ongoing delivery of quality learning programmes to all students and provide greater study options in the region."

NZME graphic
NZME graphic

Economic Impact

The downtown campus will be a robust and "attractive investment opportunity" with low risk and the potential to impact positively on many key areas of the Bay of Plenty economy, according to a 2014 analysis.

The report, prepared by Professor Frank Scrimgeour from the University of Waikato Management School, showed the campus would generate benefits of $188 million over the next 20 years and provide a rate of return of more than 30 per cent on the initial investment.

It would impact positively on attracting researchers and teachers, postgraduate students, international students, and retaining undergraduate students in Tauranga, along with allowing new programme development.

The report said one of the biggest gains comes from having students remain within the Bay of Plenty, undertaking higher education that ultimately benefits their own whanau, hapū, iwi and communities.

Priority One chief executive Greg Simmonds said the new campus development is a "game changer" for Tauranga's economy.

"Achieving higher levels of regional prosperity depends heavily on the educational opportunities available to local people and having the research capability to underpin innovation across our community. Tertiary education is a critical component in regional innovation and sustainable economic development."

He said the business community would continue supporting students and staff so tertiary education could provide graduates able to fulfill industry demands.

"This collaborative approach will help ensure the University's success in the Bay by meeting the region's skill needs, fostering entrepreneurship and innovation and ensuring qualifications are industry relevant."

Councillor John Cronin. Photo / File
Councillor John Cronin. Photo / File

History

The university worked with the polytechnic since at least 1995, allowing students to complete diplomas at (then) Bay of Plenty Polytechnic before transferring into University of Waikato degree programmes.

Still, early backers of a physical Tauranga campus said they believed students and staff needed their own space.

Bay of Plenty Regional councillor John Cronin said his involvement with the project spans about 15 years, and he remained on council four terms to see it through.

"Everything to do with this university is very dear to me, as it's possibly the biggest economic development in Tauranga's history."

Cronin said the campus will turn a region once known for housing the elderly into a place for young people, who won't have to leave home to get a tertiary education.

"Each time that happens, we lose our students from all over the region to other parts of the country and they never come back. This has the opportunity to change the demographics of our city for the better and take our rightful place as the fifth largest centre in New Zealand."

The former regional council chairman said at the outset, he had to convince fellow councillors not to insist the university guarantee student numbers.

"I kept telling them they had to keep the faith. Build it and they will come."

Paul Adams, a member of the Waikato University council and a key driver behind the project, calls the campus a milestone for the city's development and a jump-start for downtown rejuvenation.

"We'll become a student city over the next few years, and that will ensure the city council will get on with the revitalisation of the CBD."

Adams believes the campus will change not only Tauranga's demographics, but its wage and salary structure, too.

"You've got people doing whatever they're gonna do here. They'll have the opportunity to learn, grow and become professionals based in our CBD."

Tauranga mayor Greg Brownless said university development is part of downtown development.

"While council will do its bit with streetscapes and the waterfront, it's not council alone that will ever revitalise the CBD. It's a combination of building owners, tenants including retailers and office space, hospitality businesses, the university, Council and attitude."

Brownless said attitude refers to overall experience in the CBD as a destination and place to access services.

Future Growth

University leaders say the new building will be open to the community for tours and functions as additional parts of the campus are completed throughout the year.

The second stage, planned for completion in 2040, will provide capacity for an additional 500 equivalent full-time students, (around 717 actual students) per year.

Professor Jones said initially, he heard concerns the institution would take the tens of millions of dollars contributed by local entities 'back over the hill,' to Hamilton.

"We're not here for three years. We're not here for five years, or 10 years. We're here for hundreds of years. And that's our commitment to this region and I think this is only the first step in that process."

An 18 metre-high poutokomanawa panel is illuminated from the first level to the fourth level in the central atrium. Photo/ George Novak
An 18 metre-high poutokomanawa panel is illuminated from the first level to the fourth level in the central atrium. Photo/ George Novak

Artwork Vital for Tauranga Campus

Art a team effort

Artist Whare Thompson led a 10-strong team to create artworks for the University of Waikato's Tauranga campus. To support the artists' work, the university established an advisory group, comprised of representatives from Tauranga moana, Waikato, and the University three years ago to ensure the campus reflected the identities and cultural heritage of Tauranga Moana.

Art was part of the initial design stage, rather than an afterthought.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Alister Jones said members of local iwi and hapū contributed to the overarching narrative which gave the new building identity.

He said the first sketches of the proposed artwork and narrative nearly moved him to tears.

"To see that come to life is absolutely fantastic."

One of several significant pieces stands just outside the entrance, a tall wooden carved pouwhenua Te Toka a Tirikawa.

Inside, another piece, an 18 metre-high poutokomanawa panel in the central atrium, reflects Tane's and Tawhaki's ascent into the heavens to receive the baskets of knowledge.

The poutokomanawa is illuminated, from level one to the fourth floor.

University project manager Sally Davies said the artworks reflect the diversity of students, staff and community who will come to enjoy the campus, whether they're from the Bay, other parts of the country, or other parts of the world.

"The works are all connected, and the story is inclusive."

Artist-led tours are proposed for later this year as more of the facility is opened and available to the public.

Changing Numbers, Changing System

Overall tertiary student numbers have been trending down the past few years, and are predicted to fall further or plateau through 2022.

Experts say a booming economy and low unemployment the past six years have steered students from learning to earning, despite the government's new fees-free scheme.

Numbers from the Tertiary Education Commission released last November show equivalent full-time university and polytechnic student enrolment nationally was flat when comparing August 2018 to August 2017, while actual numbers decreased by 0.4 per cent, or 1174 fewer students - mostly from wanānga.

The enrolment decline has hit government-funded polytechnics, which face competition from private training establishments.

Central government earlier this month announced it will put all New Zealand's polytechnics, including private training establishments and apprenticeships under the direction of a central body, to be called the NZ Institute of Skills & Technology.

Education Counts, a website which analyses data from Statistics New Zealand for the Ministry of Education produced a report last year showing 116,170 equivalent full-time students (EFTS) attended universities in 2013, compared with 114,230 in 2017, a decline of 1.6 per cent.

Enrolments dropped about 10 per cent at the nation's polytechnics: 56,850 students were enrolled in polytechs in 2013, compared with 51,120 in 2017 (see graphic).

Tauranga EFTS at Toi Ohomai sat at 2707 for 2014 (2013 data was unavailable due to the merger with Waiariki Institute of Technology) and enrolment was 2712 for 2018.

The University of Waikato reported 9892 EFTS in 2017, compared with 12,344 students in formal programmes in 2013 .

Tertiary Education Union leaders said it's time to end competition in the higher education sector.

National TEU secretary Sharn Riggs said, "Competition has led to course closures, communities losing access to learning opportunities, and huge job losses. We do not want to see these impacts reoccurring."

Riggs said proposed government reforms for vocational education will ensure greater collaboration across the sector.

"We hope that the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Waikato is talking with local institutions to make sure the new campus does not have any adverse effects on students or staff. Whatever changes are made, universities and the vocational education sector need to collaborate so that our sector can continue delivering huge benefits to all New Zealanders."

University of Waikato Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Alister Jones said the institution has collaborated with local tertiary partners for decades.

He told stakeholders gathered at a breakfast after Wednesday's blessing the university is only here for students.

"Some people think we're here for other things, but essentially, universities are about students and knowledge generation. Without students, we're nothing."