Poppie Johnson: It’s time for this little town to think big


OPINION: As the new school year starts, the trite old endless wheel of time grinds over once again.

Students enter a new year feeling older, wiser, and engendered with the certainty of knowledge and rectitude that only youth brings.

Some are starting high school, some will commence their last year and others will leave home.

Our best and brightest are leaving for university – many of them going as far afield as they can, in search of higher education, careers and an intellectual challenge that Queenstown, for all of its worldliness, doesn’t offer.

My question is – how do we bring them back?

How do we make sure that our leading lights wish to return to our town once they have their qualifications?

One step further, how can we attract those same people from around the world?

This town is well-known for outstanding natural landscapes, tourism, our hospitality industry and the world-class restaurants and hotels.

Equally notable to those who live here are our travails with traffic, the juggernaut of rising housing costs and the transient nature of a town that still manages to maintain a local feel.

How do we diversify that image to become a hub for not only travellers and adventure-seekers but for the great minds of tomorrow?

The recent donation of the Woolshed Bay homestead to the University of Otago is a significant step in this direction.

But it begs the question of what possibilities are out there.

The University of Otago has 22,000 students and is one of the major tertiary hubs in New Zealand, with the highest concen-tration of overseas-trained staff.

Students make up 17 per cent of Dunedin’s 127,500 population.

The uni ranks somewhere between 200th to 250th in the world and is second only to the University of Auckland within NZ. That’s pretty good going.

So how about the number one tertiary institution in the world?

Surely it’s a behemoth such as Harvard or Yale, somewhere with tens of thousands of students and an enormous faculty.

Actually, it’s not. It’s CalTech – the California Institute of Technology. It has a student population of just over 2000.

NASA bases its jet propulsion laboratory there and it attracts global scholars.

Graduates have won 35 Nobel Prizes. They’re kind of a big deal.

To put that in context, if Queenstown had a university of the same size students would only be seven per cent of our population – that’s 10 percentage points less than Dunedin.

So why not think big?

What if we had a university that attracted academics and students from around the world?

What if we used our outstanding natural landscape and proximity to global science hubs, such as Mt John Observatory, our unique biodiversity and even Antarctica as the drawcards?

In fact, NASA’s already here, launching balloons just over the hill in Wanaka.

Halls of residence could be used as worker accommodation over the summer holidays during our peak season. We would see an influx of intellectual talent from around the world.

Queenstown could become known not only as the adventure capital of the world but as the cerebral capital of the world – a destination for the world’s best to shine.

Billionaire philanthropists already visit.

Each summer the apron of the airport holds private jets and the luxury $10,000-a-night accommodation market seems buoyant.

The capital is out there, so come on Graeme Hart and Richard Chandler, how about founding the Queenstown Institute of Technology – NZ’s premier tertiary establishment?

Poppie Johnson is a Wakatipu High School English teacher