Wellington Scoop

Stopping the name change, and saving Victoria University


by Hugh Rennie QC
When I submitted on 16 July and 25 July, it was very difficult to make any submission, as VUW had released very little of the basic information needed to enable any response which could be based on full information. Since then, some information has been released, on a highly selective basis. More significantly, information which had been available has been withdrawn.

In all cases that information (which included online video, messages to alumni, design tool-kits for names, and VUW papers) had been cited as evidence against the proposal.

Since then, VUW has continued to fail to make disclosure of information on its own initiative; documents have been withheld without justification when requested under the Official Information Act (a matter I understand currently being investigated by the Ombudsman); and the arguments presented by VUW have changed significantly.

Why submit?

In these circumstances, I doubt that there is any value in making a further submission; the willingness of VUW management to consider contrary information is at least doubtful; and there is certainly no true consultation on any of the elements in the overall proposal.

Portraying this matter as one which relates to a change of name alone is facile and false. A name change is the one feature of a strategic initiative which requires external consent, and which VUW therefore has put forward under the cute title of “name simplification”.

VUW’s name was “simplified” in about 2001, to damaging effect, when it became mandatory to use “Victoria University” (or in some cases just “Victoria”). This amateur branding error is now proposed to be rectified by an equally amateur move to drop “Victoria” and use “Wellington”.

All of this is apparently to attract more overseas students to VUW. It seems that this is underpinned by a focus on international rating agencies. There are three major agencies. They measure ratings in different ways. They each focus on measures including peer group review, publications by staff, and research achievements.

It is argued that VUW is not getting adequate recognition, which it is claimed means that the standing of VUW internationally is less than it should be,. Thus it is said that VUW gets fewer overseas students than it should. This curious and illogical proposition has now been contradicted completely by many submissions of present and former staff, graduates, and others which have been sent to the VUW Council. Current overseas students (ignored when the proposal was developed) are now united in opposition to it.

The claimed “poor recent performance” is contradicted by the rating agency data. Taking QS as an example, in 2016 VUW ranked 229 out of 891 world universities, in the 2019 rankings now released it ranks 221 out of 1000 world universities. In the ARWU rankings (the main Asian ranking organisation often cited as the most truly independent of the three majors) from 1500 universities ranked, VUW ranked in the 401-500 band consistently between 2005 and 2014, was then not ranked for a couple of years, and is now ranked in the 301-400 band. The only New Zealand university to rank higher is Auckland, which has been consistently in the 201-300 band.

Taking Law as a sample faculty, in the QS ratings the VUW Law School ranked =45 in 2015, rising to 38 in 2018. In the same period the Auckland law school ranked =33 in 2015, rising to 29 in 2018. These are world rankings.

The claim that these results are somehow affected by the existence of Victoria University in Melbourne is refuted by the fact that that university is not listed at all in the top 1000 world universities by ARWU, is ranked by QS in 2019 in the 510-700 bracket, and its law school is not ranked at all by QS.

The claim that universities with two names fare better than those with three is contradicted by a simple reading of the ratings tables which shows no such correlation.

The claim that VUW has been disadvantaged by not having Wellington in its name is contradicted by the fact that the ratings tables of each agency uniformly use the full name.

The claim that adding Wellington to the name will build a “capital city” brand using the high reputation of Wellington as a place to live and work is contradicted by the QS “Top 100 student cities” where Wellington has not appeared at any level in any of the surveys from 2015 to 2018. The only New Zealand cities to be within the Top 50 in 2015, Top 75 in 2016, or top 100 in 2017 and 2018 are Auckland (at positions between 18 and 28, currently 23) and Christchurch (from 2016 at positions between 47 and 69). In 1999 VUW registered the trademark “Capital City University” – which however has it seems not performed for VUW so far – yet is to be tried again without investigating why.

The one part of the Colmar Brunton research which has proven reliability was the questioning of VUW’s overseas agents about the significant of VUW’s name. It was reported:

“Agents didn’t think Victoria University’s name is causing any confusion”

“International agents think that Victoria University of Wellington’s name is easily distinguishable.”

“They feel that given Victoria University of Wellington is located in New Zealand and has the city in its name, students are not confused by similarities between it and Victoria University of Melbourne.”

No problems there!

In a last attempt to validate its proposal, VUW has commenced to publish newspaper advertisements. Consistent with the approach to date, these assert claimed facts without supporting evidence. Thus the 25 August version claims:

“The word “Victoria” has no explicit alignment with the Wellington region, unlike the word “Wellington”” – which is no doubt why Wellington is included in VUW’s name, although for 20 years not used by VUW.

“The three nouns in our current name are often abbreviated or mistakenly re-ordered to a variety of combinations, creating confusion” – which is perhaps understandable when the mandatory “Tool-kit for the last 20 years has required staff to use “Victoria University” or “Victoria” and leave out “Wellington”.

“Professional advice is clear that two words are better than three in the name of a university” – a proposition which is not supported by the disclosure of that advice and is widely contradicted in independent published research – including a technical research report by QS on how and why overseas students choose universities.

“One word must be “university” and ideally the second word should be the city” – although in New Zealand and Australia the leading universities rarely include a city name, and when they do (as in Auckland) it is a regional as well as a city name.

“There are seven tertiary institutions using the name “Victoria” prominently in their name. In most countries, the University of Victoria in Canada and Victoria University in Melbourne have more name recognition than we do” – a claim without cited evidence. In dropping “Wellington” and being almost the only NZ university without “New Zealand” in its brand, VUW may have risked some confusion; in Bangladesh it actually caused that university to change its name to Victoria!

“Ninety-eight percent of overseas google searches for “Victoria University” result in clicks through to websites other than ours – strong evidence that these words have very little specificity for our university” – a spurious claim which has been refuted by other submitters to the Council.

“The work of our staff is regularly attributed to other Victoria universities and our reputation, and that of our graduates, is adversely affected by the poor performance of one of our namesakes” – a claim which has been rejected by the actual experience of present and former staff and graduates, detailed in other submissions to your Council. I have not seen any evidence at all of this mis-attribution. Even if there were an occasional error, it would in fact work both ways. No other university in the world with “Victoria” in its name has this concern, as far as my research can ascertain.

In summary, there is no logical basis for the proposition of name change, As I set out in my previous submissions, there is major risk of loss of international reputation, identity, and overseas recognition of degrees from a re-named university. My single reason for contesting this proposal is not to retain a name out of nostalgia, but to protect 120 years of incremental achievement of VUW.

Worst of all it is clear that VUW has no “Plan B” if this Grand Plan fails, as it is highly likely to do. Plan B is it seems simply – spend even more on Plan A.

Consultation – what consultation?:

I anticipate that VUW will now claim that, after a delay of a month, there has been consultation with the members of the university. No credible claim can be made.

Courts have told us what comprises consultation. In 1992, Justice McGechan (son of a VUW law professor) cited UK authority that says:

“…the essence of consultation is the communication of an invitation to give advice and a genuine consideration of that advice. In my view it must go without saying that to achieve consultation sufficient information must be supplied by the consulting to the consulted party to enable it to tender helpful advice. Sufficient time must be given by the consulting to the consultant party to enable it to do that, and sufficient time must be available for that advice to be considered by the consulting party.”

Justice McGechan then said that “To consult does not mean simply to tell or present.” He then set out what he had said in an earlier case:

“Consulting involves the statement of a proposal not finally decided upon, listening to what others have to say, considering their responses and then deciding what has to be done.”

Salient last week quotes the Vice Chancellor as saying “So what does it mean if 45,000 people don’t get engaged?…well it certainly means that people were not anxious to get off their chuff”.

Here is what actually happened.

The first email about this radical change was sent by VUW on 8 May, claimed to be to 45,000 alumni. Perhaps so, though I have to this day not received any of the emails. The first email said:

“As we’ve become more globally engaged and our students are living and working in all corners of the world, it’s become more and more apparent, both through research and anecdotally, that our qualifications are not travelling as well as they should, based on the high quality of this institution. Part of the reason for this is that the word ‘Victoria’ is increasingly associated with geographical regions, for example in Australia and Canada, rather than Queen Victoria or our University in Wellington. This question of name confusion has been troubling the University throughout its 120 year history, and many staff, students and alumni now agree it’s time to get on and simplify our name by phasing out the word ‘Victoria’. The key benefit of this change for alumni is in degree equity—or equity in your qualification. We want to make sure the strong quality of this University is reflected in the recognition of our degrees so that our graduates succeed wherever they are in the world. Find out more about strengthening the University’s international reputation here.”

That’s telling you! Nothing in it invites any response. If you went to “find out more” you reached a web-site page (now taken down) with a video (no longer available) in which the Vice Chancellor talked about “international reputation”. It also said the proposal was to “grow Victoria University of Wellington’s international reputation” which was “the key driver behind a proposal to simplify our name to “University of Wellington”. Further featured paragraphs told you that doing this was a “lesson from history”, that changing the name of a university is not unusual and that “there are a number of ways to ensure the qualifications of graduates are still recognised”, and that “other universities have retired the name “Victoria””.

A small side panel (harder to read due to back colouring) said “if you would like to contribute to discussion on this proposal please email alumni@vuw.ac.nz by Friday 8 June”.

As any expert marketing person will confirm, the likelihood of that generating replies, a second level down from an email which did not identify the opportunity (or provide any documents to be considered) will mean almost no responses.

Here’s what the second email said on 31 May:

“Discussions are continuing with staff, students, alumni and the wider community about a proposal to simplify Victoria University of Wellington’s name by retiring the word ‘Victoria’. You can email your feedback on this proposal to alumni@vuw.ac.nz by Friday 8 June.”

Feedback on what? None of Justice McGechan’s requirements for consultation were yet met, or would be before 27 July. Eight days to understand what VUW had spent 15 months and many thousands of dollars on?

Here’s the third email of 28 June:

“Thank you again to everyone who provided feedback on the proposal to simplify the University’s name. We are continuing to collate and analyse the feedback, which will be given in its entirety to members of Council as part of a recommendation on the proposal. You can read more about the decision-making process being followed here.”

The email added that you could still communicate your views to the Vice Chancellor. But realistically no one would respond to this and nobody did.

Meanwhile the trade mark application for the new name had been made eight weeks earlier!

Then, after weeks of OIA requests from alumni (responded to by some refusals, and documents with large sections blacked out), after dozens of submissions, correspondence, and personal approaches to Council members by alumni, on 27 July VUW released some of the documents.

45,000 people didn’t reply because, at least in my opinion, they were never intended to do so.

In August, working through the documents, a very different picture has emerged. The problems that are said to make radical action essential are not supported by evidence. The solution proposed is not supported by valid research. There has been no use of VUW’s major internal skills – in research, in marketing, in Asian studies and language, in law, in design… which is surely an outright insult to those who work in those fields. Overseas students, realising what they now risk, have through their campus organisations voiced their opposition. University staff, independently polled by the TEU, have expressed opposition to the proposal by 2 or 3 to one on the questions asked. (A slight majority support the change to the Maori name). The university has become split and polarised. Alumni are alienated. Writers in Wellington media have mocked the university.

Meanwhile, the earlier support material keeps disappearing. The video of the Vice Chancellor’s early May staff address was taken down and is now a collector’s item. His video for the first alumni email is nowhere to be found (even OIA requests for the relevant material don’t produce copies of that or the web-site page). Council papers are taken down after a meeting is over. Welcome, in 2018, to Orwell’s 1984 VUW-style!

The way forward:

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the journalist Peter Arnett’s famous Vietnam dispatch for the Associated Press that included the much-misquoted quotation “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

It is not necessary to destroy VUW’s name in order to save it.

VUW like any university needs to respond to the needs of its community. It needs to build on what it has achieved. University reputations are built incrementally over decades – each small gain being an accretion to what has gone before.

Those who have challenged the Grand Plan are not people who are sunk in nostalgia; captured by romantic ideas of what a university is; or naïve opponents to change, as has been alleged. Neither am I on a political crusade, running to an alt right playbook, in league with opposition politicians against the Minister of Education (as people at VUW have been told).

Those who oppose include current students and staff, and also alumni who have moved on into the world, in education, in business, in the professions, in the arts, in the sciences. We alumni were given the tools for those lives by VUW, but in those lives we have also learned that however splendid a theoretical plan may seem, in the real world it doesn’t happen like that.

Our challenge now is to a highly risky gamble that VUW, if it changed to some other name, will then do better than VUW would have done. Our belief is that more will be achieved by investing in what VUW now is, and building on that.

This submission was sent yesterday by Hugh Rennie to the Chancellor of Victoria University.


  1. Neil Douglas, 28. August 2018, 11:16

    Vic Uni is run as a business with a required rate of return of 6% on its investments. Changing their name to Wellington University is reported as costing $1 million. The justification is attracting foreign students. VUW currently gets 3,500 a year with each student paying $30k p.a. in fees. If say they make 15% on each student (i.e. after deducting tuition costs) then spending a million on rebranding would have to attract 20 extra foreign students (a percentage increase of 0.6%) every year for 20 years to achieve the 6% rate of return. I wonder what increase in foreign students VUW has calculated?

  2. ananbel, 29. August 2018, 6:29

    Educational institutions should not operate as businesses.
    (Especially if they are taxpayer funded that are un-affordable to kiwis and mostly cater to educate foreign students.)

  3. TrevorH, 29. August 2018, 9:26

    Tremendous research and argumentation here. If the name change proceeds there would seem to be very good grounds for a judicial review. Minister Hipkins should also be aware of how deeply flawed the process has been and how risible the reasons advanced for the change are. Thank you again for your great work on behalf of all of us who are deeply concerned about this proposal.

  4. John Rankin, 6. September 2018, 13:30

    In a Dominion-Post opinion piece, Dr Russell Ballard has proposed that our universities can prosper only by joining together. He suggests New Zealand adopts the California state university model of one institution, many campuses.

    VUW would become University of New Zealand Victoria, for example. This makes a huge amount of strategic sense and would link our universities to the country’s most valuable international brand, “New Zealand”. I trust the VUW Vice-Chancellor and Council will give some thought to throwing their support behind Dr Ballard’s proposal, which couldn’t have come at a better time.