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Why Victoria University should not change its name – Hugh Rennie

by Hugh Rennie QC
Although it now appears that what the Vice Chancellor has called “name simplification” for Victoria University has been under consideration for many months, this first came to my attention on return from overseas at the end of May in a very brief reference in an alumni email to one of my family. Enquiry showed very few alumni known to me had heard of the proposal and I found very little support for the idea.

It has proved to be very difficult to access information on the proposal. Key documentation had either not been published or had ceased to be available when Council papers are removed from online access after each meeting. Official Information requests to VUW were collated into one, simplified, and presented immediately. At the time of this submission,some responses are still awaited. Much of the material sent has been extensively redacted in a way that does not comply with the Act.

This submission is confined to the English language name. What is appropriate in Maori I leave to iwi as the persons properly concerned with that.

Initial response:

On 12 June I responded to the email address cited in the alumni newsletter:

“I find it extraordinary that this change of name should even be suggested after almost 120 years of its use for the College and almost half of that time as a full independent university.
In my view the reasons proposed for it are banal and lack any credible reasons. The alleged commercial features for national and international recruitment count for nothing. Status comes from a university building up its reputation over decades and even centuries.
A geographic name is meaningless (leaving aside the number of towns of that name worldwide). One instantly thinks of Monash, Macquarie, Harvard, Stamford, Sorbonne and many others without even knowing which cities they are found in.
I urge that no more time is wasted on this stupid proposal, and that those who thought of it be given some education in what makes a university great – and the answer is not branding or marketing, but academic and research achievement.”

The Vice Chancellor responded:

“The proposal isn’t particularly ‘extraordinary’ having been made four times since 1955 and once by our ‘founder’ Stout in 1887 with his failed ‘The Wellington University College Bill’. A persistent feature of these re-naming attempts has been the desire of staff to better align with and support our city and region. This desire reflects the civic or red brick university ethos on which the university was founded.
I’m interested to understand the basis upon which you dismiss the commercial features of international recruitment? Do you have particular experience in international student recruitment that you would like to share?
I agree status comes from a university building its reputation over time. Unfortunately, after 120 years of effort, international surveys of academic reputation show that Victoria is barely on the board in that respect. Our quality as an institution has failed to translate into strong academic reputation beyond the people who directly interact with the University. Evidence gathered suggests this is partly due to confusion over our name – eight variants of which are in common usage. Our reputation is also being sullied by under-performing Victoria Universities such as the Victoria University in the State of Victoria. [Reference to a “Tweet” omitted.]
Non-geographical names for universities perform well if they are unique and the university has the resources to tell their story around the world. We do not have the resources (nor is it a good use of public money) to be telling Victoria’s story in the 100 countries from which we draw our students and staff. Our name has to stand on its own without the need for further explanation. This is why the large majority of top tier institutions use geographical names….
Sadly, you are mistaken in your last point. It would be lovely to think that great academic reputations are built purely on academic and research achievements. Unfortunately that romantic view of universities ignores the reality that the universities perceived as ‘great’ amongst the 18,000 worldwide all now have expert marketing departments and brand managers and compete fiercely for the international prominence necessary to attract top staff, students and investment.”

This response left me deeply troubled. I was even more convinced that VUW has embarked on a potentially damaging and mistaken plan, casting aside the assets now held in its name and reputation without taking steps which will achieve a greater benefit.

I record now the following points:

• I did not then know and have since been unable to find evidence of a desire by staff to drop the name Victoria and thereby better align with and support our city and region. Sir Robert Stout did not propose a name change, merely an initial name.
• I did not “dismiss the commercial features of international recruitment”.I said the proposed change would do nothing for student recruitment within New Zealand – and it won’t. I said the proposed change will do nothing for international student recruitment. In this submission I explain why not.
• I do have “particular experience in international student recruitment”. My principal (but not sole) experience was being engaged to carry out (with another person) an expert review on New Zealand’s tertiary non-university overseas student recruitment some years ago.
• I disagree that “International surveys of academic reputation show that Victoria is barely on the board in that respect”.
• I did not say that “great academic reputations are built purely on academic and research achievements”. I disagree that my view is “romantic”. I do say, as I said before, that branding and marketing will not create great academic reputations. Branding and marketing can only sell what is in existence.

My view then was that VUW was about to substantially damage its current and future reputation, in an ill-conceived pursuit of a new “brand”.

But was this correct? In the light of the Vice Chancellor’s response, after four weeks of work fitted into an already over-taxed schedule, it is even more clear to me that this branding initiative is not supported by real evidence, is very unlikely to have any positive benefit, and will certainly injure the present standing of VUW.

International surveys of academic reputation:

Given the weight placed on this by the Vice Chancellor, it is interesting to contrast the current official New Zealand website which promotes all New Zealand universities nationally and internationally which says:

“Our university sector is unique
• New Zealand is home to eight universities of the highest quality. All are ranked in the top 3% (500) universities in the world.
• New Zealand’s universities are also highly ranked by subject. They are ranked within the top 50 universities in the world in 22 different subjects, and in the top 100 in 39 (out of a possible 46) subjects.
• New Zealand graduates enjoy some of the best graduate outcomes in the world – with high completion and employment rates, and low rates of under-employment.
• New Zealand universities have a robust and multi-layered quality assurance system, which ensures programmes, teaching and learning are of a very high standard.
• The strong reputation of New Zealand universities is the key reason why 93% of our international university students chose to study in NZ.”

…When the individual listings of VUW are inspected, it becomes clear that not only is VUW highly ranked, but individual schools within the university are readily identified and given high rankings. Thus the QS 2018 survey states:

“Victoria consistently ranks among the world’s best universities. It is ranked 219 in the 2017/18 QS World University Rankings and in 2015 it received five stars from QS Stars University Rating in each of the eight categories – arts and culture, discipline ranking and accreditations, employability, facilities, inclusiveness, internationalisation, research, and teaching.

In the QS World University Rankings by Subject, Victoria is ranked 38 in the world in Law and in the top 100 universities in 11 other subjects; Archaeology, English, History, Linguistics, Performing Arts, Psychology, Earth Sciences, Geography, Development Studies, Hospitality & Leisure Management, and Library Management.”

The legal position

Legislative change would be required to change VUW’s name. Section 3 Victoria University of Wellington Act 1961 provides:

Constitution of the University

1. For the advancement of knowledge and the dissemination and maintenance thereof by teaching and research there shall be a University to be called the Victoria University of Wellington.
2. The University shall consist of the Council, the professors emeriti, the professors, lecturers, Registrar, and librarian of the University for the time being in office, the graduates and undergraduates of the University, the graduates of the University of New Zealand whose names are for the time being on the register of the Court of Convocation of the University, and such other persons and classes of persons as
the Council may from time to time determine.
3. The University shall be a body corporate with perpetual succession and a common seal, and may hold real and personal property, and sue and be sued, and do and suffer all that bodies corporate may do and suffer.
4. The University established under this Act is hereby declared to be the same institution as the institution of that name existing immediately before the commencement of this Act under the Victoria University of Wellington Act 1933 (as amended by the Victoria University of Wellington Amendment Act 1957),
which institution was originally established under the name of the Victoria College under the Victoria College Act 1897.

This is the legal basis for the existence of VUW. It defines who comprises the “university”, and specifies what its name shall be.

Information material issued by VUW in support of “simplification” claims that a name change may be effected by the Minister under s.162(5) Education Act 1989 by a notice published in the Gazette. However it is in constitutional law not possible to amend an Act of Parliament by a notice by a Minister in the Gazette. I have confirmed with one of New Zealand’s leading constitutional lawyers that a name change would require amendment of the 1961 Act.

While Parliament may amend any of its Acts, it would be at least unusual for that to be done without the clearest request and assent of those who together comprise (under s.3(2)) the “university”. It is inconceivable that a University whose law school is regularly ranked in the top 50 in the world would act otherwise.

The core issues:

The core issues are: what issues or problems are thought to exist which require action; and if there are such issues, will a change of name deliver resolve, or at least substantially mitigate those issues?

The public material issued in support of the proposal proposes that the issues and problems are:

(a) Name confusion between VUW and other universities in the world whose names include “Victoria”;
(b) A claim that the substantial research status and achievements of VUW are not adequately recognised as a result of this confusion;
(c) A belief that VUW is not obtaining the share of overseas students which it merits and that this is connected to the two previous issues;

On the assumption that a change of name (in essence, a new branding of the university) will resolve or mitigate these issues and problems, supporting arguments are presented for a new name (which it appears is not finally settled but may be “University of Wellington” or “University of New Zealand Wellington”). In particular:

(a) It is claimed that a university in a capital city has a superior appeal to students overseas selecting a university;
(b) Reference is made to the high ranking of Wellington internationally as a city where it is congenial to work and study.

In a memorandum of 13 March 2018, the Vice Chancellor summarised the hoped-for outcome:

“The principal downstream benefits expected from achieving these goals are enhanced international academic reputation, greater global research impact, improved international rankings, increased recruitment of international students, and improved ability to partner with leading international universities.”

VUW has cited research by Colmar Brunton claimed to support the proposal. Despite VUW citing and relying on that advice, Colmar Brunton (in breach of the code of ethics applicable to such research) refused to release it. VUW ultimately released redacted information.

I have had the available information peer reviewed by an expert in such research and have consulted another expert in research and branding. I record now that it is seriously deficient and I am advised of no utility.

Existence of problems:

Internationally, there have been examples of confusion between universities (including but certainly not limited to those with “Victoria” in their name) for many years.

VUW has presented no evidence of any name confusion within New Zealand, and it is improbable there is any. Any “confusion” relates only to an overseas knowledge of New Zealand and in turn VUW.

VUW has presented no evidence of research by the University being misattributed to other universities, in New Zealand or overseas. It appears that the real issue is that international ranking tables of universities (which are an increasingly common feature of student selection of places to study and so a target of marketing by universities) include in their evaluation algorithms for calculations based on research citations.

The Vice Chancellor in correspondence has claimed that recent data from Google Analytics indicates that the “click through” rate from online searches to the VUW website is low – about 2% of searchers. This data has not been disclosed and the raw figure is meaningless.

All this, taken together, is only one element of such analysis. VUW is currently ranked within the top 500 universities in the world by the three major ranking agencies. Specific schools are highly ranked – for example last year VUW law school was ranked in the top 50 in the world by one agency…..

In about 1999-2000 VUW took a number of steps which “simplified” its branding by giving major prominence to the words “Victoria University” and omitting the words “of Wellington”. It built an entire design toolkit around the use of just the words “Victoria” and “Victoria University” – see http://toolkit.victoria.ac.nz/digital-brand – whose use was and is mandatory. The main web address for VUW was changed from www.vuw.ac.nz to www.victoria.ac.nz .

It entered into arrangements with at least one Asian university which then led to that institution also adopting the name Victoria. Victoria University College of Bangladesh states:
“Global Institute of Business and Technology (GIBT), Dhaka – the only approved educational partner center of Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) in South Asia – …started functioning in 1999. In March 2001 it signed a partnership agreement with Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. The partnership agreement was designed to jointly provide degree programs for students with facilities for studies both at GIBT and VUW leading to VUW degrees.”

A further development was that most other New Zealand universities adopted “New Zealand” as part of their title and logo…Only “Victoria University” dropped its regional and national claims.

Any “confusion” is clearly a twenty year “own goal” by VUW. A first step to exploring the mitigation of any adverse effect is to follow the lead of other New Zealand universities, reinstate the correct name of Victoria University of Wellington, and add “New Zealand” to the logo and other supporting material.

Change of branding:

The most common reason to make a substantial change to a long-established brand or name is to discard the past and present the newly-named replacement as the candidate for the future.17 There are in New Zealand many examples of this – in the public sector this has often followed a restructuring as in the energy and telecoms industries. In broadcasting (where I had extensive experience) a specific objective was to transition names in the face of external competition.

Like it or not, such change is a vote of no confidence in the past; and hazards the future on the uncertainty of whether the new name will be successful. In this case, the only identified purpose of the change is an international competitive proposal – it has no relevance to student recruitment (or academic recruitment or retention) in New Zealand.

It involves embracing an untested new brand element in the use of “Wellington” – a complex brand which in lifestyle values has some current positives; but in commerce and the public sector some significant negatives (“the dead hand of Wellington” (bureaucrats); “a dying city”(John Key); etc).

There is no researched justification presented to answer these key questions….


VUW has spent an unknown number of hundreds of thousands of dollars20 without establishing a credible case for change, and is now about to commit to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars more to implementing a break with its past as a risky and unnecessary experiment as to its international reputation which is unlikely to succeed and whose failure would cause serious damage to VUW.

None of the disclosed information shows that VUW has implemented the advice of Ms Madeleine Setchell on 1 March 2018 in a memorandum to the Vice Chancellor:

“The below assumes full costings and an analysis of impact will be undertaken, drawing on international and domestic research already provided, prior to any decisions being made.”

It seems even that initial prudent step has not been taken. In proceeding now VUW will separate itself from its current standing and reputation, lose the support of many of its graduates and alumni, here and overseas, and it will not advance its position at all within its primary student catchment – New Zealand.

It is not too late to avoid this.

This is an abridged version of a personal submission by Hugh Rennie on the proposal by the Vice-Chancellor of Victoria University of Wellington to change the university´s name. It was sent this week to the university.