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A screenshot from the film 'Learning is a way of life,' courtesy of the Hocken Collections, University of Otago Higher Education Development Centre films, MS-4104/003. Copyright University of Otago.

A screenshot from the film ‘Learning is a way of life,’ courtesy of the Hocken Collections, University of Otago Higher Education Development Centre films, MS-4104/003. Copyright University of Otago.

In 1981, following 25 years of a growing or, at worst, stable roll, the University of Otago faced a decline in student enrolments. As the northern universities continued to grow, Otago dropped from 7004 students in 1980 to 6825 in 1981, and would drop again to 6739 in 1982. At a time when travel and accommodation costs were rising rapidly, Otago, which drew the majority of its students from out of town, was at a disadvantage. Adding to its woes was the government’s new Tertiary Assistance Grants Scheme, introduced in 1980 to replace the old student bursary system. The new scheme was less generous, and students did not discover whether or not they had been approved for the “hardship” addition to the basic grant until well into the year; many were turned down. Some potential students were not willing to risk penury and Otago’s enrolments suffered.

The university was not about to take this lying down. Attempts to persuade government to amend its student funding policies proved unsuccessful, meaning the university’s promotional activities became critically important. To attract future students, it produced “attractive colour brochures” about its various degree courses and its residential colleges. It also broadened its promotional efforts with an exciting new venture, the film Learning is a way of life: an introduction to student life at Otago University. The Hocken has recently digitised the 16mm films in its collections, and I’m delighted to be able to share some excerpts on this blog (the film remains copyright to the University of Otago).

Learning is a way of life was produced in-house by the Higher Education Development Centre’s AV production centre, with a budget of $11,700 (including distribution costs). Planning began early in 1981, with a committee of four: HEDC director David Teather, Robert van der Vyver (the film’s producer), English professor Colin Gibson (who wrote the script), and university liaison officer Ian Page. Music professor John Drummond composed the bouncy soundtrack, performed by members of the music department. The budget included two hours of helicopter hire for the opening aerial shots.

Though scripted, the film was based on the experiences of five real students: Peter Griffiths (a med student), Amanda Ellis (arts), Diana Carson (commerce), Graham Mandeno (science) and Joan Parker (education). They were clearly selected to represent a wide range of students. While Ellis was a fresher learning her way around campus, Griffiths was in his third year and a sub-warden at Unicol. Parker (who doesn’t appear in these excerpts) was a mature student with children at school.

Titles and opening scenes:


The “terrific” new clubs and socs building:

The joys of flatting:

Around the University Union:


I’ve selected some general scenes of student life to show here, but the 33-minute film also featured lectures, tutorials, field work, music and drama productions, along with a few scenes of the Dunedin shops and entertainment venues. It closed with scenes from graduation.

The film screened on nationwide television in June and September 1982, and there was also a showing at the Dunedin Public Library. By November more than 30 copies had been sold or loaned to schools or individuals. But how successful was the university’s first major promotional effort? Enrolments jumped by 350 in 1983 and by just over 200 more in 1984; by the end of the 1980s growth had accelerated and Otago had over 10,000 students. As the 1985 university newsletter commented, Otago was back to the familiar problem of “a rising roll and a limited budget.” It is difficult to measure what influence the film may have had on enrolments. I’m not convinced that the scenes of Amanda’s hostel room would have drawn anybody here! If you saw this film and it helped sway your decision to come to Otago, I’d love to hear from you.

Otago’s promotional efforts of the early 1980s started something. Competition between tertiary providers was heating up as free market economics gained influence. “This is a competitive world and Otago’s promotional efforts triggered off activity in some of the other universities,” noted the staff newsletter in 1985. Media and communications accelerated in importance and various campaigns have since sought to grow Otago’s “place in the world,” as one slogan put it.

Learning is a way of life was, in the 1980s, an innovative and sophisticated way to market the University of Otago in response to a crisis in enrolments. Though it cannot have been the intention of its creators, it is now a wonderful historical snapshot of life at Otago at that time. I hope it brings back happy memories for some viewers!

Update – 13 October 2014

For those who would like to see the entire half-hour film, I’m very happy to say it is now available on the Hocken Collections YouTube channel (in 3 separate parts) – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UChzpcDq9VcuDLMXaoJHklBQ