A quiet revolution is taking place in Manukau, where one university is slowly introducing a low-income community to higher education. Kirsty Johnston visits AUT South Campus.

The first task when AUT moved into its new premises in Manukau, South Auckland, was to pull down a wire barrier surrounding the site.

High and foreboding, the fence was used by former owners Carter Holt Harvey to keep the public out. Five years on, its removal has become something of a metaphor for those who work in the grassy, tree-lined campus and who are charged with bringing tertiary education to a community still largely unsure about the university world.

"For me and everyone who works here, it's quite fascinating," says Professor Geoff Perry, the Pro Vice-Chancellor of the campus.

"Evangelism isn't quite the right word, but there's definitely a sense that we are doing something valuable. We are here to work with the community and to make a tangible difference."

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The campus was opened in 2010 after the Government tasked AUT with helping South Auckland into high-level tertiary study, over and above those who already studied at the two local polytechs.

The Government was concerned that while the region has one of the country's highest rates of young people, its rates of university uptake are extremely low.

So far, the project has been successful, with a building expansion about to take place to absorb the 4100 equivalent full-time students the university is funded to teach until 2020.

While its goals may sound lofty, in practice the university's structure is extremely practical.

Its programmes are deliberately wound together with the region's economic needs, and the needs of those who live nearby, a format that fits both what the community and the Government wanted.

"In the early stages we thought we would move a whole school or faculty, but in the end that became too narrow," says Professor Perry.

Instead it's moved to concentrate on four areas - Health and Science, Food and Nutrition, Technology and Enterprise, and Human and Social Development.

Some of the courses are what Professor Perry calls "destination programmes", big-ticket items that attract learners from within and outside the area and give it "academic mana".

Others are duplicate programmes also offered elsewhere - first-year business courses, for example - some which provide a pathway to degrees at the university's other campuses in the CBD and Akoranga. There are also a few bridging courses, but they take no more than 10 per cent of all students a year.

Central to the framework is industry connection to ensure students can get jobs in the real world, to meet new people and where they are exposed to opportunities.

Tertiary education minister Steven Joyce was pleased with overall plans, but would like to see more industry relationships.

"They're making good progress there but there is more to do in that space," Mr Joyce said. He noted AUT was a young university, meaning all of its relationships were fairly new.

Mr Joyce said the university was "crucial" to lifting high-level tertiary participation, particularly for Maori and Pasifika.

Professor Perry said while there was work to be done, belief in creating change was a strong driver. Many students would be the first in their family going to university, he said.

Construction on the new building - which will host lectures and workshops and also has conference facilities - starts next month.

Maternity care where it's needed

Health experts are hoping that shifting midwife education to South Auckland will help fill a local shortage as graduates decide to practise within the community.

AUT's Midwifery programme leader, Dr Andrea Gilkison, says they are also hoping for a more diverse student body for the three-year degree, to meet the demographics in the community.

"That's what we strive for because we want our graduates to serve the women of Auckland, we want them to reflect that," Dr Gilkison says.

The move has also meant new purpose-built facilities - with a state-of-the-art birthing room, to help students prepare for their required 2400 hours of clinical placement.

Some students still study at Albany, via video link. A few made the shift to Manukau mid-degree, like third-year student Ruby Melsom, from Glen Innes, who says it's rewarding to be able to study and work in her community.

"I'm really hoping I can work in South Auckland when I graduate, I want to help with the shortage," Miss Melsom says. "A lot of women here are Pasifika or other minorities, and the don't really know enough about midwives or have a good continuity of care. So I think I can contribute."

Miss Melsom said she had been fortunate to do a range of clinical placements alongside practising midwives, thanks to the strong connections between AUT and local health boards.

Midwifery student Ruby Melsom wants to work in South Auckland. Photo / Dean Purcell
Midwifery student Ruby Melsom wants to work in South Auckland. Photo / Dean Purcell

Director of Midwifery at Middlemore Hospital, Thelma Thompson, said they were excited to have the school based in South Auckland.

"It makes it easier for students, but the main benefit is the growth of the profession and having the relationship with the school.

"That relationship means we can talk to them quite openly. It's also allowed long-term planning for the midwifery profession."

Ms Thompson said she believed the shortage will be filled in a few years as a number of students coming out of AUT stay in the area.

Healthy food study a benefit for locals - Nutrition and exercise

A snack bar designed by researchers at AUT may soon be produced commercially in a bid to improve the supply of healthy food.

For Professor of Nutrition Elaine Rush, the production would represent the full circle - research by South Auckland students helping their own community.

Professor Rush, one of the country's leading exercise and nutrition experts, says it is that kind of work she wants to foster at AUT's Manukau campus, where she is now based in her role at the university.

"It's very rewarding to be where you can walk the talk, and be where the people are [whom] you want to make things better for," Professor Rush says.

"It makes sense for exercise and nutrition to be here, and it's very exciting."

The Nothing Else snack bar, made of natural ingredients like nuts and honey, and currently under final testing by PhD student Mary Yan, will be produced by local manufacturer AB Food Industries.

The company partnered with the university, helping Ms Yan by lending a kitchen and donating 2000 of the bars for her research.

Professor Rush said she was hoping more businesses would take up the same opportunities.

She said if anyone in the food industry wanted to look at the problem of healthier food they had the design, science and health experts at the campus to help them.

"We have a clear goal of growing New Zealand a healthier food supply. We need to feed our children better," she said.

Facts and figures

• Government's goal is 55 per cent of all 25-34-year-olds having a tertiary education qualification.

• Another of its tertiary education priorities is lifting the achievement of Maori and Pasifika students.

• South Auckland has the fastest growing youth population but the lowest population in tertiary study.

• 60 per cent of students at the AUT South Campus come from the wider South Auckland area.

• 28 per cent of students at AUT South Campus are Pasifika. 13 per cent are Maori. 15 per cent are Asian.

• The university campus has feeder schools from across the region, including Papatoetoe High, Aorere College and Otahuhu College.

• Post-graduate programmes include arts, education, computer and mathematical sciences, health sciences, sport and recreation.

Timeline
2010: AUT South Campus opens in Manukau with 600 students.
2012: The first 200 students graduate, 50 of whom gained postgraduate qualifications.
2013: Government supports expansion of the campus to 4100 equivalent full-time students by 2020.
2014: AUT meets its 1000 equivalent full-time student target.
2015: AUT has 1200 equivalent full-time students. A new building is planned to start in August.