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Summer school, from the cover of the 2009 prospectus.

Summer school, from the cover of the 2009 prospectus.

Happy new year! The Dunedin campus came back to life last week as summer school began, so this seems a good moment to look back at the short history of the summer semester, now in its 14th year.

For many decades the University of Otago offered various special courses over the summer, but with a few exceptions these did not give credit towards university qualifications. Most were continuing education programmes, run by the Department of University Extension, which offered a wide variety of opportunities for learning over the summer. People came to Dunedin from near and far for short intensive courses on everything from creative writing to a seniors’ course on the living environment. Bridging and promotional courses were also offered over summer, as remains the case today, with JumpStart Physics and Hands-On Science bringing many people to campus. Beyond Dunedin, the University of Otago, Wellington, established a Public Health Summer School in 1997. This popular programme continues to offer short intensive continuing education courses on numerous public health topics.

This was all very commendable, but did not help students who would like to use the long summer break to complete more of their course. Perhaps they wanted to repeat a paper they had failed, or meet a prerequisite needed so they could change their major, or just to spread their workload more through the year. By 1999 the University of Otago was the only New Zealand university without a summer school offering papers for credit. This clearly put it at a disadvantage in the contest for new students; what is more, some Otago students attended summer schools at other universities to further their learning, showing a clear demand for such a service. The Vice-Chancellor set up a committee to investigate extending Otago’s teaching year. It quickly ruled out the idea of three equal teaching semesters and became the Summer School Working Party. Its final report, in February 2000, recommended that a summer school be introduced, with the first two or three years as a trial. Associate Professor Merv Smith, who had for many years chaired one of Otago’s largest departments, biochemistry, was appointed to the new key position of Director of Summer School.

In January 2001, 700 students arrived on campus to study the 23 papers on offer at Otago’s first formal summer school. This was more students than anybody had hoped for; the programme was a roaring success from the start. After a second successful year, with over 1000 enrolments, the trial was over and summer school was confirmed as a permanent fixture on the Otago calendar. By 2010 summer school enrolments had grown to 2639, but the university had to cap numbers at a lower level the following year to avoid carrying more students than it received government funding for.

Effective writing, computer programming, criminal justice, introductory economics and introductory business management featured among the most popular papers in the early years of summer school. Alongside such bread and butter offerings, some departments quickly recognised that summer school provided an opportunity to provide quirkier courses which might attract new students who would come to do a paper or two just for personal interest. Visiting lecturers – sometimes from overseas – could be appointed to teach a special paper, offering opportunities for some very creative curriculum choices. The only course which might be considered a little out of the routine in 2001 was a second year paper on wine tourism, but soon it had been joined by a wide range of other papers offered only at summer school. Some courses have related to current political issues or to popular culture: theology, money and markets; governing the global environment; the vampire on screen; and the fantasy worlds of CS Lewis, Philip Pullman and JK Rowling, to take four recent examples. Others have introduced completely new subjects into the Otago curriculum: disabilities studies; Arabic language; and, one of the most popular papers of recent summers, forensic biology.

My best wishes to everybody involved in summer school in 2014. You might appreciate some advice given by Vice-Chancellor Graeme Fogelberg in the prospectus for Otago’s first summer school: “Perhaps you will also take some time away from your desks to enjoy Dunedin and its environs at a time when the days are longer and warmer than those during our normal semester programmes.” This summer hasn’t been notable for its warm temperatures as yet, but there are still those magnificent long southern evenings to enjoy!