Dawn Freshwater: University of Auckland up for the challenge

Opinion: As students become graduates, it is a time to think about the world they’re moving into, writes Vice-Chancellor Professor Dawn Freshwater in Ingenio.

The world is a very different place for today's graduates.

As our students become graduates and alumni, it is a time to think about the world they’re moving into, beyond the environs of Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland.

The world of our 2022 graduates is vastly different from that of their recent predecessors. It is shaped by a pandemic, war and conflict, inflation, protectionism, disruption and fragmentation, polarisation, inequality, disinformation and climate change. As graduates move into a job market hungry for talent, their world is complex and challenging.

They are not the first to graduate into difficult times and we know that among their ranks are alumni who will meet these challenges head-on and make the world a better, safer place for all.

The same challenges facing our graduates and our students are shared by the University, our communities and society. As we implement Taumata Teitei, our Vision 2030 and Strategic Plan 2025, these global challenges, with their unique Aotearoa New Zealand manifestations, will shape our path forward.

We have been living with disruption for some time and have seen its impact on the education, travel, media, retail and energy sectors. The pandemic accelerated this disruption and now it is challenging us.

We must respond to these turbulent new realities as we face a financial and carbon-constrained future. Employers want high-quality graduates to be work-ready. At the same time, there is greater competition, some of it reaching into New Zealand from overseas universities.

It means that, as this University’s leaders look to the future, we must forge fresh approaches to what we do while remaining committed to our core values of respect and integrity, excellence, service and quality.

Sustainability has been a focus for many years, yet we know we have a responsibility to act with more urgency and do more to meet our ambitious carbon-reduction targets by 2030.

Professor Dawn Freshwater Vice-Chancellor, University of Auckland

We are re-examining how we support equity students and how we prepare students to navigate complex and changing work environments. Our students are not a single group for whom we can deliver a one-size-fits-all study option. Our students are living lives in which they can eat, bank and shop at any time of the day or night.

Some work long hours to fund their study, others have care obligations, and others are working and need to upskill. As they demand flexibility from us, we must reassess their changing needs and emerging digital ecosystems. We are working to transform our curriculum to meet the future needs of a diverse student cohort committed to lifelong learning.

A central aspect of this future curriculum will be to develop work-ready graduates. We already offer online professional masters courses for our full-time professional working students.

Sustainability has been a focus for many years, yet we know we have a responsibility to act with more urgency and do more to meet our ambitious carbon-reduction targets by 2030. This will put us on a solid net-zero trajectory to help limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Our carbon inventory shows that our single largest contributing activity is air travel. Inbound international students and work-related air travel together produce more than 80 percent of the University’s greenhouse gas emissions. This information alone highlights the challenges we face to meet our target.

To realise our sustainability aspirations, we must make cultural and systemic shifts in how we work, think and interact. But we must also recognise the importance for our academics and leaders to leave our shores in the interests of research and global connections. There are difficult decisions ahead of us.

As our globally ranked university strives to remain in the top ten worldwide for Sustainable Development Goal impact, and in the world’s top 100 universities, we are focused on quality, equity and sustainability. Driving achievements across these three areas will bring tensions and challenges. Yet we know these tensions will produce the innovations needed to succeed.

In doing so, we will honour our people, communities and environment. We will work to ensure that our institution, students, academics and staff are strong, resilient and prepared to meet the demands of our rapidly evolving world.

Professor Dawn Freshwater, Vice-Chancellor
Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland

This piece was the VC's editorial in the spring 2022 edition of Ingenio, a publication for alumni and friends of the University.