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Network ties growing, getting stronger

[Helen Nicholson]
Helen Nicholson, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Division of External Engagement for the University of Otago in New Zealand recently visited Queen’s University to help strengthen ties between the members of the Matariki Network of Universities. (University Communications)

Helen Nicholson, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Division of External Engagement for the University of Otago in New Zealand recently visited Queen’s University to further foster ties between the institutions. Otago and Queen’s are members of the Matariki Network of Universities, an international group that focuses on research partnerships and undergraduate teaching. Gazette editor Andrew Carroll spoke with Dr. Nicholson about her trip as well as the relationships being built through the Matariki Network. 

Queen's In the World

Gazette: What are your priorities during your visit to Queen’s?

Helen Nicholson: I decided to visit Queen’s as I’ve heard a lot about it and as part of the Matariki Network it’s good to be here. I also am catching up with Kathy O’Brien, Associate Vice-Principal (International), and want to learn more about developing alumni relations because that has come under my portfolio recently and Queen’s has a much stronger history of alumni giving than New Zealand. Also I’m here to meet with some of the health science people and talk about research. I suppose that’s why the Matariki universities were chosen, because they are similar, it has a similar sort of feel here (to the University of Otago) – a small city and a big university. 

Gazette: What has the experience been like for Otago as a member of the Matariki Network of Universities?

HN: It’s interesting. I think the Matariki Network is only just beginning to become something with a life. Over the last couple of years we’ve taken part in the research themes – all seven of the research themes, one per university. For the last two years we’ve been working on an indigenous program, which takes place in June this year, a two-week program where students and staff from across the Matariki Network will come and work together. We’ve also been involved in a global citizenship program and there’s a meeting for that in Uppsala (University in Sweden) in April. We, our students and staff have been working with Uppsala’s students and staff to think about what global citizenship means and, if we can come to a common understanding, what does that then mean for the university and what should we be doing and what could we be doing. 

We’ve been welcoming people from other Matariki universities to Otago and we provide funding for our staff to go to Matariki universities. Until last year that was only for academic faculty but we’re now broadening it out so we fund our senior administrators to travel as well. I think that has been really useful. I think those sort of things are a really tangible benefit of being in a network that trusts each other and is willing to share their data, warts and all, but then to learn from each other as to how we can improve. It has a lot more potential but it is beginning to feel that it is a network. 

Gazette: With Principal Daniel Woolf’s recent visit to Otago and your arrival here there must be a boost for ties between the two universities. How would you describe the relationship?

HN: We’ve just had the meeting of all the executive board of the Matariki Network – the presidents and principals or vice chancellors – and that was preceded by an alumni event for four of the universities – Queen’s, Uppsala, Durham and (Otago). I think going into it there was some skepticism as to why would we do this. But in fact it was a very positive evening and I think particularly being in New Zealand where (Queen’s has) alumni who would rarely see the principal otherwise. It was an opportunity for them to meet the heads of their universities but what was interesting was watching them network with each other. So alumni from a given university who might feel isolated on the other side of the world were able to start networking with people who have gone to Durham or Otago and feel more at home in the community.

The meeting of the heads of the universities was a very positive meeting and under the banner of Partnering for a better World it was good to see that all of the vice-chancellors, presidents and principals got on and were willing to share and, I think, have a much stronger relationship than they had before the event. I think it has strengthened the ties and it has raised the visibility of the Matariki Network. It was a useful meeting. 

Gazette: Can you tell me a bit about the University of Otago’s strengths and what it offers to students potentially looking at taking part in an exchange?

HN: It’s the oldest university in New Zealand and it’s the most research-intensive university as well. It’s research-led and aims for excellence in teaching and research but the other thing we are trying to do is educate young people to become members of a community. It’s the only truly residential university in Australasia. It’s very similar to Queen’s and 80 per cent of our domestic students don’t come from the area. They come from all over the country. So when they come together, and they come to residential colleges, they make friends for life. 

It’s in a small town and we are very close to nice scenery and beaches and skiing. It’s a small town that really has a great town-gown relationship. It’s a multicultural society and it’s safe, it’s fun and it’s student focused.