University of Otago founded

3 June 1869

Original University of Otago building with horse-drawn carts in front.
Original University of Otago building (Hocken Library, S09-228d)

Governor George Bowen gave his assent to the Otago Provincial Council’s University of Otago Ordinance, enabling the establishment of New Zealand’s first university. The council set aside 100,000 acres (40,500 ha) of ‘pastoral land … of a quality not required for settlement’ to fund the new institution. The recently established synod of the Presbyterian Church was a key backer, bankrolling the establishment of a chair of mental and moral philosophy. Provincial Superintendent James Macandrew’s long-term goal was to establish a Dunedin-based University of New Zealand to help offset declining provincial gold revenue.

Melding the Scottish enthusiasm for education with the class-based theories of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, the Edinburgh-based Otago Association had envisaged the foundation of a university in its 1847 plan. Settlement leaders Thomas Burns and James Macandrew pursued the idea, but even a high school was a pipedream until the gold rushes of the early 1860s enriched the province.

The elderly Burns was named as the university’s first Chancellor, but he died before it opened in the downtown Post Office (later Stock Exchange) building on Princes St on 5 July 1871. Sydney University had opened its doors in 1852; Otago’s was the third university in Australasia, after Melbourne’s.

Otago’s two other founding chairs were in classics and English language and literature, and mathematics and natural philosophy. A chair of chemistry and mineralogy was introduced in 1872, and within a few years lectures in mining, law and – most importantly for the long-term prestige of the institution – medicine were also being given. The fee for attending classes by each professor was initially 3 guineas (equivalent to about $450 today) per term. Thirty students had enrolled by opening day, and 81 were recorded in the first year – a number not exceeded until 1879. Female students could attend classes from the beginning, but until the late 1870s they were eligible for certificates rather than degrees.

Macandrew’s educational empire-building failed, and the University of Otago became a college of a colony-wide University of New Zealand in 1874. Otago did keep its title and eventually it regained its independence – and its power to confer degrees – with the dissolution of the University of New Zealand in 1961. In 2019 Otago had more than 20,000 students, including nearly 3000 international students from 100 countries.

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