Dunedin Succeeds In Building Minds, Missing In Action When It Comes To Keeping Them


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Of all the crass metrics that get thrown around in our national political theatre, Kiwis Moving To Australia is one of the most problematic. It desperately reeks of Little Brother Syndrome, and seems happy to ignore the social and environmental problems of our Western neighbour to suit this political end. It is easier for David Shearer to argue on points of raw data than on nuanced issues of indigenous rights, social equality or environmental protections. Party strategists seem more keen to scream “They’re leaving!”, than ask “Why would our policies make them stay?” On a personal level, I resent being used as a political football. As one of many New Zealanders with whanau living across the ditch – my mother is now an Australian citizen – I resent MPs trying to politicise me being close to my family sometimes.

Before this conversation got reduced to a line graph charting aeroplane tickets, we used to talk about things like the Brain Drain and the Knowledge Economy. Now, I realise that a lot of this was window dressing, but at least it could be turned into something meaningful. For all of its funding and access issues, we still have a great public education system. It’s why people from all over the world send their kids to the end of the earth to learn a thing or two. It’s natural that, for a variety of personal and professional reasons, some of our best and brightest graduates will leave the country. It may be temporary, or ir may be indefinite, but these decisions deserve to be treated with respect. All that aside, we could certainly do better at giving those who want to stay and work here a reason to.

A lack of vision in retaining graduates is one of the great missed opportunities in Dunedin. Questioning the local economic impact of the University of Otago is foolish – the University pegs it at ~$800million per annum, or ~16% of GDP – but the value of the individual scholars, during their studies and after they’re completed, barely gets a look in. By tolerating them en masse for their dollar value as they study, and ignoring their individual potential to contribute to the City economically and socially beyond that, we are doing ourselves a massive disservice. We have stunning natural beauty on our doorstep and within the city limits. We have stunning heritage architecture, low cost of living and the intellectual vibrancy of a strong academic and artistic community. Every year I have friends who leave town once they have graduated, despite a desperate desire to stay, to work, to raise families. All we have to do is give them a half a leg up and they will gladly do the rest.

There is no easy solution to the question of What This Might Look Like in a practical sense, but the first step is agreeing that we need to work harder, and more collaboratively, to figure out the map to getting there. Tertiary institutions, local government, the Chamber of Commerce, Employers Association, local branches of political parties, social agencies, trade unions, landlords and property managers all have a seat waiting for them at the table. As I walk around Dunedin and see greater stocks of retail and office space For Lease on a daily basis, I daydream about those spaces being filled with retail incubators, social entrepreneurship, art studios and tech startups. To me, every empty space represents another handful of students who could have not just gone on to achieve great things, but could have also had the chance to do it here. You don’t need to have majored in mathematical modeling to figure this one out. Whatever we are doing now isn’t working, and anyone who isn’t interested in turning the ship around should take their hands off the tiller and let us get on with it.

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  1. I’ve got whanau who have become Australian citizens too. As things are now, they may not even be able to come back for tangis; or other family occasions, for fear of being arrested for unpaid student loans. But what can you do when you’ve racked up over $100 000 becoming a PhD, only to find that the only work this country has for you is flipping burgers on minimum wage?

    Something’s got to change with the student loan system. Although I hope the Green Party gets sufficient seats in the next parliament to progress their scheme of; writing off a portion of a loan per year a student remains in the country, I can’t see Labour going that far. Perhaps if; the tax paid by those with loans was to be subtracted from loan balances, rather than mandatory payments being applied to increase effective tax-rates for those who risk education, then my generation might find some way out of that particular debt swamp.

    • Why do people go to university unless they believe it will benefit them economically in the longer term?

      • Because the majority of research that needs to be done and the problems we have aren’t profitable endeavors. Besides that, if your impassioned by a subject, eg poetry, philosophy , history or the sciences, you have a duty to the rest of humanity to produce the fruits of that passion, so that one day somewhere your word or deed can brighten the day at our darkest hour.

        It’s only bad when you have high school teachers funneling you into signing up to expensive institutions before you can figure out which hole in a girl tastes the best. (personal experience, not sexist)

        • If we need to do them then they will have a demand associated with them. This demand may well be from the public sector but it will still be there and therefore the people doing the research in the area should expect to earn more as a result of their studies.

  2. However much a non-citizen pays to attend an NZ university should be doubled, half of it being invested in the tuition of a Kiwi who commits to work in NZ. The foreign students take it all away anyhow.

    • DWNATS- Otago has a falling number of international students, the only reason they came to NZ was price and lower entrance requirements than other much more desirable English speaking countries.

      They pay a lot already and are much more valuable to the University than domestic students, we need them more than they need us.

  3. ‘we still have a great public education system.’

    Thanks to that ‘great’ education system you do not understand that GDP is a fraudulent measure. Indeed, the whole fabric of industrial civilisation, and especially the western version of it, is fraudulent, a lie.

    Never mind. You’ll learn the hard way, and fairly soon, Aaron.

    • I find the use of GDP as a metric problematic to, but that is a whole separate argument. So long as it is the Official Yardstick, I don’t think it is constructive to ignore it completely until a better one is taken on board. In a way, I was getting at that point when I mentioned that economic value is held in high esteem but social value (beyond graduating) seems to be ignored. Regardless of how we measure the success of our city (financially or socially), the University will always have the potential to play a large role.

      • I do find it funny that your discussing the merits of using GDP with someone who thinks our society will shortly revert to a Mad Max style of living after 2015. I’m not sure Afewknowthetruth cares that much whether GDP as a metric is problematic but the best we have got at this time in that context.

  4. “For all of its funding and access issues, we still have a great public education system?”

    Funding and access are not the most serious issues preventing the public education system being even better. The growth and evolution of public education is being kneecapped by the cretinous, treacherous attacks on it by Tolley and Parata under the stewardship of English and Key.

    We still have a great public education system in spite of what they have done so far. When they bed in their further assaults we will unfortunately be burying the “great.”

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