Wellington Scoop

Why VUW shouldn’t change its name (2) – Hugh Rennie

by Hugh Rennie QC
Victoria University of Wellington has been progressing what it calls its “name simplification” project. That title in fact relates to an intention to give VUW a new and different identity. Such a change has no justification unless it leads to consequential effects which are beneficial.

The intended consequential effects have already been cited by VUW and noted in my submission. I am as keen as anyone to see those objectives achieved. What I do not accept – with much greater certainty given what I have learned since 16 July, is that the intended course of action has any prospect of achieving any of them. Worse, my initial fear that the opposite result would occur (a diminished and injured university – with major injury to its staff, graduates alumni and students) is heightened.


Only two days ago, key information was provided under the 11 June OIA request from Barrie Saunders. In consequence I have not yet received the review of the research I commissioned from McComish Research Ltd, and which I have stated will be sent to VUW. This details the instructions given to Colmar Brunton for its research. It is now clear that the research was not carried out to ascertain whether the existing name and identity is a weakness in overseas countries. That issue can be ascertained objectively but the instructions start with that assumption.

I have not had time to take professional advice on this. But from my own experience of over 40 years testing research in courts, tribunals, and the public sector; using it as a director of media companies; and evaluating it on commercial and other boards I can say this (while not the worst) is one of the most deficient projects I have ever seen.

In addition, almost daily I receive more information which should have been made public by VUW at the start, or at latest when requested under the OIA.

For example, a few days back I learned from VUW staff that there is a half hour YouTube video of one of the “staff forums” at which this proposal was presented. I have now viewed this. Its content raises serious issues. Examples are that the error rate in the Colmar Brunton survey is wrongly stated; reliance is placed on “findings” where the difference between them is much less than the real error rate; and erroneous claims are made about other universities dropping the name “Victoria”.

This forum’s “consultation” is in fact a didactic instruction about what has already been decided and committed to.

I have left the Maori title for iwi to consider. But I was highly concerned to learn that dropping “wananga” from the current name is associated with attempts to deny the use of “university” in the translation of the names of Maori wananga. I could find no record of consultation with iwi organisations in Greater Wellington

Both the QS Intelligence Unit and Education NZ hold extensive research on how to reach and engage with overseas students, how to market to them, what the main drivers are of their choices, what role name plays in each stage of selection of a university (reputation history and standing count, but names are a minor factor), and many more matters. It is incomprehensible that such research was not used in or alongside the Colmar Brunton work.

An emotional reaction?:

VUW seems to believe that those who question the proposal are showing emotion, not reason (“nostalgia” – “romantic notions”), and that this diminishes the arguments made for reverting to and strengthening the VUW brand in its traditional form.

The role of emotion in brand loyalty is the exact opposite. One of the leading exponents of that is Kevin Roberts whose pioneering 2004 publication “Lovemarks” led to recognition that the most powerful brands are those which drive emotions of commitment, empathy and passion. That engagement is a major positive and ongoing asset. The responses of alumni to VUW’s “simplification” show those qualities and the presence of passion in them shows the high value of what VUW now has.

International ranking surveys:

Given a statement by the Vice Chancellor that:

“I’ve met with the marketing experts in both key ranking agencies in London. Both agencies are sure the proposed name simplification will be positive for the university’s rankings.”

I wrote to them and asked whether such a statement was the official view of the ranking agency and whether it was correctly quoted. I also asked what research existed to support that statement and how I might access it.

Mr Ben Sowter the Director of the QS ranking unit replied:

“I can confirm that we have freely provided a statement to the university confirming that we, and I more specifically, believe that the proposed name simplification is likely to be constructive for the university’s ranking performance. Moreover, that it will help to eliminate confusion in international marketing where there are a number of other “Victoria” universities and colleges.

We have not undertaken any research directly on this matter that I can direct you to, although my understanding is that university itself has done so. The statement provided is based on my expert opinion having been both a practitioner of one of the world’s most widely referenced rankings and a student of others for over fourteen years. If I can provide further clarity on the matter, I would be happy to.”

Mr Phil Baty the Editorial Director of THE Global Ratings replied:

“THE does not normally share details of their interactions with academic institutions, however, we have contacted Professor Guilford and he has advised that he is happy for THE to respond.

THE can confirm that Prof Guilford visited our offices in London in early November last year to discuss our experiences of university name changes and the pros and cons thereof. We shared with Prof Guilford our experience of such changes, the benefits, the risks, and the way the risks can be managed. In our opinion, the proposed change of the University’s name to the University of Wellington will have a beneficial impact on the University’s international reputation, particularly if it is coupled with a well-planned brand campaign.”

It is apparent from these replies that it was VUW which proposed a name change to them and, without any research, each expressed an opinion that a change could have an outcome that would be positive.

I responded to Mr Baty noting that the significance of linking THE’s opinion with a “well-planned brand campaign” and that that needed to be compared to applying the same resources to a campaign for the existing brand. He has not responded.

These opinions are about “ranking” and “international reputation”. They do not address the primary role of VUW in New Zealand, or what actual results could be achieved which would be “constructive” or “beneficial”.

A well-planned brand campaign:

A response I received from the Chair to the Foundation had attached to it a copy of the proposed new logo for VUW (renamed). The Vice Chancellor has since sent this to other persons also.


I have taken advice on this from an international expert and his response to me after reading the response from the Foundation chair was:

“…the logo is a disaster. If this is what they think they should go with, they will be forced to think again. The logo is just a bit of name switching. Just calling itself Wellington is not enough. Their visual language and copy needs to be compelling and with such a strong design community in Wellington they will want to see a better job done. I guess the logo is a starter, there is an application of the logo in this format, but it is not a brand, and the desire for brand has lead them to their decision. [We have] managed several name changes for corporations and government entities over time, this looks like a group of people with their mind well made up but without experience in communicating. They have admitted to poor marketing; the name change is a jump-shift. An integrated and marketing program around a name launch takes at least three months to prepare, I hope they have started their planning.”

I have not been able to ascertain the minimum cost for a “well-planned brand campaign” within New Zealand and in the targeted overseas countries, but I am advised that it is certainly in the millions of dollars.

In my view it would be irresponsible to risk those monies as well as the existing strong reputation of VUW on an experimental and under-researched project for a new identity.

Response from alumni:

I sent my submission to a small number of friends from my days at VUW, one of whom provided an edited version for Wellington.Scoop and went on to establish a Facebook website which also published it. Both in the responses on that site and the several dozen further communications I have received direct, there has been almost unanimous endorsement of what I set out.

Response from staff:

I have had a number of communications from VUW academic staff. Worryingly, a number are not willing to “stand up” to what is perceived as something which it could endanger their career to oppose. Quoting from one which was sent to the Vice Chancellor:

“…the proposed name change is a profound mistake, motivated apparently by little more than a poorly-researched attempt to use re-branding as a marketing tool in the quest to lure overseas students away from Auckland. I have seen several responses sent by you to others who have questioned the proposal, which give me the impression that the issue has been predetermined even though no substantial evidence, nor systematic analysis of benefits and costs, have been made available for outsiders to evaluate the alleged benefits of the intended change.

None of the academic staff to whom I have spoken have been supportive of the change. I have not encountered any of the claimed “strong desire by staff” to “align better” with the alleged interests of Wellington as a city by dropping the existing name of the University. Nor have I seen results from any systematic polling of staff on the issue, which would have been helpful given that my range of contacts is inevitably limited and possibly unrepresentative.

Similarly amongst alumni with whom I have spoken the proposed change enjoys no support – rather the contrary. The University clearly runs the risk of a substantial loss of loyalty and support from its past students, which no doubt you have factored into your decision.”


I affirm my previous submission. It is not too late to avoid making a very serious error.


  1. greenwelly, 31. July 2018, 15:35

    Given that the University (or at least the VC) is clear on what it wants and appears deaf to any alternative thought… It would seem that the best place to fight this is with the Minister of Education, (as it will be his decision to override Parliamentary statute).
    We should also direct all comments to
    c.hipkins@ministers.govt.nz and @chrishipkins on twitter…

  2. Helene Ritchie, 31. July 2018, 18:23

    I am lost for words….(just this once!) For me, this proposal from our University just beggars belief – it is appalling, stupid and clearly has no evidential basis. It just smacks at the core of what a University should be about…critical thinking, critical analysis, open dialogue, education ..yes education – not blindly pursuing a “brand” and a changed “brand”

    Thanks Hugh ( and Mary Mowbray earlier) for mounting such careful research and argument. You should be heard in an open public dialogue directly with the Vice-chancellor and the Council. If they believe in the primary role of a/our University, they should be pleased to make such open submission and dialogue happen before 27 August and they should be prepared to change their minds.

  3. Andy Foster, 31. July 2018, 20:45

    Thank you Hugh for your fantastic work on this. I’m a Vic graduate too. This all smacks of shelving history, 120 years of it – including our history. What will the answer be when we are asked where we got our degree(s) ? All for the sake of a short term marketing fad which may or may not bring any benefit, and frankly how would you tell given it would undoubtedly have to be accompanied by a lot of marketing effort. Did any extra student(s) come because of the name change or the extra marketing dollars?

    The other thing that really annoys me is the quote in your previous article from the VC who said regarding previous looks at name changes: “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 am absolutely sure the staff of VUW (that’s a name pretty aligned with our city right now) are very committed to our / their city. So many staff do fantastic work including research out in our communities. What about management though ? Having to deal with VUW management last year over the Karori campus sale, there was not a shred of evidence that the local community, the Council, the City or even the Government mattered in their decision making. While we (Council and Ministry of Education, Heritage NZ and community) wanted to engage with Vic and master plan for the short and long term benefit of everyone – including Victoria – all that seemed to matter to them was money as quickly as possible. They even did everything they could to dissemble that they weren’t making an absolute windfall. Yesterday we saw the scale of that windfall reported – $28 million from Ryman plus almost $4 million from the various houses sold and $800,000 from Council for pool carparking land. Great return on 10 bucks!

  4. perry cameron, 1. August 2018, 7:28

    We Must Keep Wiki – Wellington’s cultural heritage. I support Hugh Rennie’s submission and thank him for it. There is neither a business case nor community wellbeing argument that adequately supports the proposed change.

  5. Gillybee, 1. August 2018, 18:13

    “Having to deal with VUW management last year over the Karori campus sale, there was not a shred of evidence that the local community, the Council, the City or even the Government mattered in their decision making.”
    This statement beggars belief.

  6. Sean Fernandez, 1. August 2018, 22:47

    This is the inevitable outcome of focusing on business development rather than developing researchers.

  7. Nikki Macdonald, 1. August 2018, 23:19

    There are apparently 39 Wellingtons in the world. So we’d better change the city name too, to avoid further geographical confusion. [via twitter]

  8. Tony Jansen, 3. August 2018, 11:10

    Great research and comments by all.
    I too am a double graduate from “Vic” and am aghast at the ill proposed name change. Prof Guilford and cronies need to look up the definition of “good citizen” and also while they are at it “community development”. VUW under the current administration are the bereft of moral, ethical and community backbone. This administration represents the very worst of Wellington, not the best.
    As an aside…I wonder how many other “Wellingtons” there are in the world? Perhaps we will be fighting this battle again within a short period of time?
    God help us when the details for the “Music Hub” proposed for Civic Square/Town Hall come to light. I shudder to think what sort of deal has been struck (in secret as usual).
    Lastly Prof Guilford should be mindful of Oscar Wilde’s oft used quote – “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing”.

  9. Cecil Roads, 3. August 2018, 14:32

    I wonder if Massey University Wellington Campus will get confused with the new ‘Wellington University’?

  10. Nora, 4. August 2018, 15:17

    Of concern with this removal of Victoria replaced by Wellington University will the next change be Mt Wellington instead of Mt Victoria?
    And well said Andy Foster in his praise of Hugh Rennie.

  11. Cecil Roads, 4. August 2018, 21:57

    Is Queen Margaret an appropriate name for a Thorndon girls’ school? Should a French lady who took charge as Queen of England courtesy of being married to a mentally challenged Henry IV from 1445 to 1461 and again from 1470 to 1471 and who led a bunch of red roses against some white ones be an appropriate name for the school?

  12. Albert Frogmore, 4. August 2018, 22:13

    Is this the same University that wants to flatten, with absolute brutalism, Gordon Wilson’s monument to state housing on the Terrace? And all to make a tiny pile of money – how indecently grubby.

  13. Michael Gibson, 5. August 2018, 9:23

    Last night I found myself talking to two very impressive “students” one of whom was a post-graduate – they both said they did not know a single person who was in favour of the change.
    One of them had just introduced himself as being “from China”.

  14. Anna, 5. August 2018, 9:42

    The Vic ‘name simplification’ to University of Wellington would leave us with ‘UoW’ as an acronym, the same as University of Waikato. Not convinced that makes our identity simpler. [via twitter]

  15. Chris Eichbaum, 5. August 2018, 9:45

    Robust debate is one element of a healthy university environment. But spare a thought for those employed at Victoria University navigating how best to articulate their views on ‘name simplification’ with the maintenance of relationships with those of a different view. #stickwithvic [via twitter]

  16. Andy Foster, 5. August 2018, 16:39

    Hi Cecil Roads – I had to check this one out – and it is a diversion from VUW, but Queen Margaret College is I understand named after the 11th Century Queen Margaret of Scotland who was made a Saint. She was the wife of Malcolm III, whose forces killed the one rather well known Macbeth.

  17. Cecil Roads, 5. August 2018, 18:10

    Go to the top of the class, Andy! Margaret was sister to Edgar the ill-fated Anglo-Saxon King of England. She fled to Scotland to escape the nasty Normans in 1066. So she was a bit of refugee which is better than being a colonist (like my namesake Cecil) if you want things to stay named after you or your statues to stay vertical.

  18. Alain, 5. August 2018, 18:57

    This is turning into quite the saga – as it should. I invite those interested in the matter to examine the data contained in the Colmar Brunton report – which is cited as evidence of the benefits of the name change. Trouble is that the report is absolutely statistically inconclusive. The claim that removing ‘Victoria’ from the name will positively impact student choice is clear misrepresentation of the data. (Data suggests that the name should include ‘New Zealand’).
    I will stop here and let everyone form their own opinion on the credibility and professionalism of the University Council.

  19. Marion Leader, 6. August 2018, 8:42

    “I will …. let everyone form their own opinion on the credibility and professionalism of the University Council.”
    We have!
    The latest example of this is VUW taking an expensive last-minute advertisement in The Dominion Post today and not mentioning that VUW is one of the university’s “commonly used abbreviations”!

  20. Barbara McKenzie, 10. August 2018, 14:32

    I have submitted thus –
    Victoria University of Wellington Name Change Proposal – Submission

    New Zealand has been called the reactive society. Certainly it is very easy to push through change, whether it be MMP or compulsory bike helmets. Often these decisions have been disastrous, especially in the educational sphere: 2 year schools, open plan in the classroom (whereby 5 year olds started school in a room of 80-90), and the concept of non-phonetic spelling.

    Given our openness to change, most interested parties to the proposed name change for Victoria will have at least given it serious consideration, rather than relying on a knee-jerk response. And we are talking about educated people. The more I think about this proposal, the worse it looks, more so after attending a presentation by the Vice-chancellor. As I recall, in my 55 years in Wellington, during many of which I was enrolled at Vic. or my children were enrolled there, I was never aware of any feeling that there should be a name change. The project appears to be the brain child of the present council, not representing a long-standing issue.

    It would appear that the fundamental reason for the change is simply to attract more overseas students, and the money they bring. The Vice-chancellor’s Powerpoint presentations placed on a lot of emphasis on recognition and Google searching, ie whether searching for Victoria would get students to the right place. In fact young students will search for “University Wellington Zealand”, or look up a list of universities under Wellington, New Zealand, and likewise “University Melbourne Australia (I had never heard of Victoria in Melbourne). I myself just searched on “Victoria Wellington” which got me the requisite hits.

    When I lived in England, people often assumed I came from Wellington, one of the towns that was absorbed into the new city of Telford. Given the way terms like university have become debased over the years, I have a horror that people might think University of Wellington is actually Telford Polytech.

    Grant Guilford talked at length about prestige, appearing that a name change will lead to greater prestige in itself, thus leading to more students, and more money. He appears to undervalue the prestige that Vic. already has. The Law School in particular has a high reputation. Changing the name will certainly lead to a loss of prestige – people won’t know whether it is the same university or some inferior cousin, or whether the name changes masks a reduction in quality. The young students will ask their lecturers for advice, and these will never have heard of Welly Uni. The situation could take 50 years to recover, if ever. The University Council and the Minister could be presiding over a disaster.

    In the shorter term, there will be public relations consequences from the dichotomy between those who attended the university before the change and those afterwards. “You’re going to Welly? Of course I went to Victoria, which was a much better institution”. No-one will want to change their CV so that it reads University of Wellington.

    If the University Council is serious about attracting students, the money would be much better spent on improving the student experience. Victoria has a very poor reputation in this regard, and deservedly – I know of Wellington students who chose to study law in Otago for that reason. If anything the student experience seems to be deteriorating, with a shortage of attractive places that people can just hang out – all the little libraries that made studying French and German so much more fun than doing eg Sociology 1 have gone, I gather. I knew someone majoring in IT who enrolled in French just so he could enjoy the Romance Language common room, which of course is long gone. Last time I was enrolled all the students studying subjects with huge classes seemed to hang out on Kelburn Parade overbridge. The closing of the Karori campus will have only increased this pressure on space. I did not get from the Vice-Chancellor any sense that student satisfaction in this regard was a priority.

    In summary, it seems most unlikely that the change will do anything for the reputation of the University, or for those presiding over the change, nor do anything to enhance its visibility.

    (Dr) Barbara McKenzie