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UC awards honorary doctorate to Margaret Austin

31 March 2023

UC is bestowing an honorary doctorate on educator, politician, scientist and community advocate, Margaret Austin.


Margaret Austin and her husband Jack at the town site on her University of Canterbury graduation day in 1954. (Photo credit: Austin family)

The Honourable Margaret Austin CNZM CRSNZ will be awarded an honorary Doctor of Science (honoris causa) by her alma mater, Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | the University of Canterbury (UC), at its Faculty of Science and Business School graduation ceremony on Thursday morning, 6 April 2023.

A former MP and cabinet minister, Austin has been a strong advocate for many causes, from medicine to music, and has dedicated years of service to the community in the fields of education, politics and science.

Margaret Austin Margaret Austin (Photo credit: University of Canterbury)

“It’s enormously satisfying that the University of Canterbury has recognised me in this way,” she says. She described it as a “huge honour for this daughter of a railwayman”.

Austin began studying at the university’s town site (now home to the Arts Centre) in 1951, “when there were only 1200 of us”. She describes her lecturers as inspiring teachers.

While studying, she “earned pocket money” as a night lab demonstrator, and serving morning and afternoon tea to the staff, including Vice-Chancellor Henry Hulme. (Students also earned money other ways, she says. “We earned enough possum trapping to keep us in beer money for six months”.)

She recalls a week-long Banks Peninsula fieldtrip for special advice given by Professor Edward Percival. At the end of the week, he assigned the 14 male students to clean the whare “to perfection,” she says, “while the four girls followed him up the hill and eventually, he would sit us down for this little lecture, the substance of which was: ‘I accept that you will be the mothers of the next generation, but do not forget I am educating you to contribute to this country’.

“I would love to ask him now: ‘Well Prof – have I fulfilled your expectations?’ That’s what was going through my head as this award came through; have I fulfilled his expectations? What he did was open our eyes and make us realise that opportunities would come along, and doors have opened and I’ve walked through them,” she says.

Her advice to today’s graduates: “You’re taking the first steps in your life’s experiences. Make sure that you not only earn your living and establish your family but contribute to this country.”

Austin has so many accomplishments and achievements in her long, distinguished career that it is difficult to summarise them. With numerous links to UC, she has been Patron and Trustee of Rutherford’s Den as well as a Trustee of the Christchurch Arts Centre, a pivotal member of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Board, and Coordinator of Music Interests in the Christchurch Rebuild, as well as Vice-President of the Civic Music Council, and Chair of the Antarctic Endeavour Christchurch.

Born in Dunedin in 1933, Austin (née Leonard) graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Botany and Zoology from UC in 1953, before training at Christchurch Teacher’s College – now UC’s Faculty of Education – in 1954.

Her wealth of experience and leadership is evident in everything she does. A former head of science at Christchurch Girls' High School and Assistant Principal at Riccarton High School until 1984, during that time she was awarded a Teaching Fellowship in Biological Sciences at UC (1970), a relieving lectureship in science at the then College of Education (1975) and a Commonwealth Fellowship at the Institute of Education in London (1980-81) where she presented a thesis on The Structure of the Secondary School Curriculum.

Elected to Parliament in 1984, she was a Labour MP for the former Yaldhurst electorate. During her political career, she was Senior Whip, Minister of Internal Affairs, Minister of Research, Science and Technology, and Minister of Arts and Culture. She held the Yaldhurst seat for Labour until 1995 when the seat was abolished in preparation for the changeover to MMP. She says one of her greatest privileges was to be “engaged in informed decision-making” as a Labour minister.

From the late 1990s she Chaired the NZ National Commission for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), once having to follow the famous actor Sidney Poitier to speak at the General Conference in Paris. Between 2003 and 2007, she was President of the Chairs of UNESCO national commissions worldwide, and in New Zealand she was Chancellor of Lincoln University from 2000 to 2005.

In 1993, she received the New Zealand Suffrage Centennial Medal, and her work was further recognised in 1994 when she was awarded the Royal Society of New Zealand Silver Medal for contributions to Science and Science Education. She was elected a Companion of the Royal Society Te Apārangi (CRSNZ) in 2007 and was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (CNZM) in 2008.

She led the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve project, which received gold status in 2012 for its pristine skies. The 4300-square kilometre reserve – which includes the University of Canterbury Mt John Observatory above Lake Tekapo – is the World's Largest Gold Dark Sky Reserve.

Her phenomenal contributions to the community in countless other ways have included chairing or serving as a member of numerous boards, including for Reproductive Medicine, Osteoporosis New Zealand, Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, Pegasus Health community Advisory Group, Council of the Royal Society of NZ, and Science Alive Trust, among others.

April 2023 UC Graduation celebrations include:

Tuesday 4 April, 10am

  • 150th Anniversary Graduation Week Street parade

Tuesday 4 April, 1.30pm

  • Qualifications in the Faculty of Engineering

Thursday 6 April, 10am

  • Qualifications in the UC Business School
  • Qualifications in the Faculty of Science

Thursday 6 April 2023, 2pm

  • Qualifications in the Faculty of Arts
  • Qualifications in the Faculty of Education
  • Qualifications in the Faculty of Health
  • Qualifications in the Faculty of Law

More information
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