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Submission to VUW Council on proposed name change

Submission to VUW Council on proposed name change

July 31, 2018

Introduction

Its great VUW has produced a comprehensive paper that contains the case for changing the name. But if the Council had wished to make a properly considered proposal at its August meeting, this paper would need to have been released three months ago, followed by a systematic consultation with the key groups: academic staff, students and alumni.

This has not happened. Presentations by the VC selling the change proposition do not count as consultation. A two-week period for further submissions on a provisional decision to change the name, is absurd and shows lack of good faith.

There is no need to hurry

As a relatively young country New Zealand has very few institutions older than 100 years, which makes VUW at 119, part of a tiny group. Discussions with previous members of the Council, show that the so called “name problem” has been discovered by the current VC, only in the last couple of years. VCs come and go but hopefully this institution will last forever.

Given the Victoria name has worked well for more than 100 years, any proposal to change must be well justified and subject to very careful consideration, which would also involve the downsides and costs. Our Parliamentary system has been rightly criticized for rushing through legislation, which has subsequently been amended, often many times. VUW should not fall into this trap.

Absolutely nothing in the 50-page document remotely demonstrates there is any urgent reason to change the name. The fact the VC wants to issue new certificates under a new name in 2019 is no reason to rush the process, it’s just his personal deadline – he is a man on a mission. The name change issue has only been in the public arena since May, 2018.

It is my experience on company boards, that management often tries to rush decisions, because they know further reflection by directors will raise more questions and doubts. The Council should resist this management driven attempt at hasty decision-making.


The Hunter Building saga parallel

A few decades ago VUW management wanted to demolish the Hunter Building because it was an earthquake risk. It was only because of public-spirited alumni and others that, this magnificent building was saved. Imagine how VUW would look without Hunter, our Victorian building from the past, that is the current face of the University?

The VUW role

Reading the 50-page document one could be forgiven for thinking VUW exists primarily to attract foreign students, not to provide a great education for the overwhelming 2 majority who are Kiwi. I accept foreign students are important for social and economic reasons but they should not be the prime focus.

Research

The paper makes much of how “potential offshore students” viewed various name combinations.

Comment: Those surveyed were young people offshore, not necessarily people planning to enroll in a New Zealand university. Stripped of the detail, what is clear is that the name of a tertiary institution is not a major consideration for these people – maybe 11% and whether it is VUW or UoW is not material.

Second, to the extent they had a view, the words “New Zealand” were much more important than “Wellington”. While we all may think Wellington is a great city to live in quite frankly it does not rate abroad at all. I have lived in Australia, London and New York and even in Australia many people don’t know it is the capital.

The promotion done by the Wellington City Council through its agency WREDA in offshore markets is very modest in financial terms. In the case of secondary and tertiary education, total funding including that co-funded with Education New Zealand and institutions such as VUW, is only about $700,000. (This information came from a request to WREDA) If VUW really wants to understand how potential offshore students view VUW and potential name changes it should do qualitative and quantitative research on the best possible group – enrolled students at VUW who come from offshore. Any such research will need to be done on a strictly confidential basis by independent professionals so as to not influence the results.

VUW April 30 2018 media release: “A leap in the number of international undergraduate students at Victoria University of Wellington reflects its growing reputation as a globally ranked capital city university….. The University has also seen a more than 10 percent increase in new international Master’s postgraduate diploma and post graduate certificate students."

Using Colmar Brunton to survey 7/8 of VUW’s agents was bizarre. If many of the 170 odd VUW agents had been saying for several years the name was a problem, that would have some credibility. The responses of the tiny number of agents surveyed through Colmar Brunton thus have no value.

Google – the relevance of

There is a lot of commentary about Google searches for VUW and the word Victoria. Its easy to get lost in the technicalities here. Clearly anyone living in say Australia or Canada (not great sources of our offshore students) will likely end up with “Victoria” tertiary institutions in their own countries.

Students in Asia or elsewhere will not start out searching VUW. They will think first about offshore English speaking countries, and if they decide New Zealand has merit they will look at the NZ Universities website and proceed from there.

From a practical view-point, while VUW is located in a great city, it doesn’t have direct flights to Asia, accommodation costs are high and quality challenging. If VUW put a 3 decent effort into solving the accommodation issue, it will be vastly more attractive to offshore students. The Council should take note of the great SIT win from the Invercargill City Council free fees policy of a few years ago. Direct flights from Asia are rather unlikely.

Academic staff

The paper says there is support for a name change from academic staff. I accept this is the case but have no sense at all as to the extent of the support, and whether it is in part because they can see the VC is determined, and think there is no point in resisting.

I am aware of several staff members who are totally opposed. In some cases they have told the VC of their opposition. In return the VC sent back personalized responses as to why they were wrong to oppose change. In at least one case the staffer found this response seriously intimidating and became seriously concerned about their future career at VUW. It may not have been the intention of the VC but it was the effect.

If the Council wants to know what academic staff think it should ask the VC to get an independent agency to conduct a secret ballot of all academic staff. That secret ballot should either contain no information about the case for change, or a balanced pros and cons sheet, and then let the staff vote on the status quo, the proposed name or an alternative.

Alumni

There has been no consultation with Alumni. What the VC has done is speak to some Alumni groups about change, from which he has received comments. I infer most were negative. Many Alumni did not get the initial email in May announcing what was proposed, but some of these got the package released July 27, 2018. The VC has tended to dismiss those who are negative as being “nostalgic”.

As with academic staff if VUW really wants to know what Alumni think it should survey all Alumni for which it has email addresses, with a short pros and cons (or no information) and ask them whether they favour the proposed change, no change or another option.

This should be handled by independent professionals. The information should be prepared with the involvement of both those arguing for change and those against.

Rankings agencies

Some have said VUW could gain better rankings from a change of name combined with effective marketing. What is not clear is whether they reached this view after being prompted by discussions with the VC, whether they have anything to gain from upgraded marketing and how they would react to improved marketing with the current name.

VUW April 30, 2018 media release: “The University’s international standing is also important – in the latest QS World University Subject Rankings it is among the top one percent of universities in the world for 17 subjects and in the top two percent of universities overall."

The cons of change

The paper is impressive for its length and does marshal an argument for change.

However it is virtually silent on the downsides of change. I see these as:

1. Negative for current students who enrolled at VUW but yet to complete their courses.

2. Negative for graduates, particularly those who seek employment overseas. To use the awful managerial language of the paper, graduates will face serious degree equity losses.

3. Negative for graduates and academics with published research. If there are problems at present with the different ways VUW research can be referenced, then the problems will be massively increased with the name change. It is noted that University of Wellington is three words, not the two favoured by the VC.

Conclusion

The paper is a house of cards. When you drill down into each component of the case for change, each is shown to be less than claimed, irrelevant or misleading. For the sake of a great institution, the Council should either reject it or at least park the proposition so it can be studied further, including a professional sounding of student, academic and alumni views.

Barrie Saunders

--

Retired government relations consultant (Saunders Unsworth), previously worked in journalism and public relations in New Zealand and offshore, New York based North American Director NZ Meat Board 1986-89 inclusive, co-editor Salient 1967. He is Chairman of the NZ Taxpayers Union.


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