The proposal to change the name of Victoria University (dropping “Victoria” and just leaving the institution as University of Wellington) probably doesn’t get much attention in the rest of the country. But here it has excited quite a flurry of interest, with thousands signing petitions opposing to the planned change. Graduates and staff seem to have been particularly vocal, amid reminders of the ancient conception of universities in which graduates are forever, in some sense, “members” of the university.
I graduated from Victoria, some decades ago. I suppose I do still feel a vague warm fuzzy sense of association with the place, and have even done the odd lecture there over the years. But even that association probably has more to do with a career spent at the Reserve Bank which has long had reasonably strong associations with Victoria. I suppose I have fairly happy memories of my time as a students (low fees, universal student allowances and all that), but I was living at home and Victoria was never the centre of my life. So, equally, I can’t summon a great deal of analytical or emotional energy to object to the latest plans of the corporate bureaucrats who now run the degree factory.
This proposal seems to be all about money. Money isn’t unimportant, of course. But the bureaucrats claim that simply changing the name of the institution will somehow boost the institution’s prestige, and in turn boost their international student numbers by up to 850 a year (I don’t have the numbers at my fingertips, but that must be a fairly large percentage – actually, on checking a 25 per cent increase). Something doesn’t really ring true.
The university has published various papers in support of its proposal. One is some market research conducted by people in various countries who might be of a stage to consider foreign study, as well as some interviews with international agents (presumably advising potential students).
The agents apparently noted that university name might matter a bit at the beginning of a search process but
Agents think as students do more research, name becomes less important as the students rely on university rankings and the agents to identify universities.
Which seems about as rational as one might expect.
The market research people also asked how much various factors matter in deciding where to study. These were the top seven, all of which seem (again) strikingly sensible. The name of the institution doesn’t – as one might expect – matter very much at all.
There was also an interesting page about the name options that were market-tested
Three names tested well: National University of New Zealand, New Zealand National University, and University of New Zealand, Wellington. When presented in isolation students preferred National University of New Zealand or New Zealand National University. However, when presented with other factors (in the choice modelling task), University of New Zealand, Wellington produced the greatest increase in preference. We think this is because having the city name in a contextualised decision making task provided the students with more information to base their decision on.
The impact of the names on preference for Victoria differed by country, for example changing the name to New Zealand National University would increase preference by 6.2 percentage points amongst Chinese students but drop it 1.9 percentage points amongst American students.
Nothing like grandiose ambitions from the Vice-Chancellor: National University of New Zealand indeed! From an establishment that trails far behind Auckland in the international rankings, and which would have no claim at all to a title “National” (although one can see why foreign students might be misled if such a title had been adopted).
The corporate bureaucrats are keen to stress that Victoria University of Wellington isn’t a very old name – and indeed it isn’t (we had the University of New Zealand, with (mostly) various constituent colleges (thus Victoria University College) until about 60 years ago). That in itself is hardly good grounds to scrap a well-established name (and, as their material also notes, this is apparently the third or fourth time they’ve tried to change the name).
As various observers have pointed out, there are many universities around the world with names that (in isolation) give you no clue about where they are located (unlike Victoria University of Wellington, or VUW). I just had a look at one list of global universities: by my count, 7 of the top 25 in that list had names that didn’t tell directly of specific location. One could add the Sorbonne, Imperial College, Notre Dame, Brown, McMaster, and the list would run on without limit. Perhaps the difference here, if there is one at all, is that Victoria University of Wellington is just not that good a university? That wouldn’t change by trying to jettison a historical name. If anything, if location-based titles really matter a fig, there is probably a stronger case to consider change for Wellington’s other university (Massey), except of course that it is a multi-campus operation.
But, to be honest, the thing that surprises me a little is how many Wellington liberals have come out to defend the name: empire, colonisation, and all the rest being more than a little out of fashion, and no name being more emblematic of the British Empire and its colonial foundations than Victoria. Why, even the local newspaper has an editorial this morning calling for the name to be kept – the same newspaper that only weeks ago was weighing in strongly supporting the Wellington City Council’s Maori strategy, prioritising Maori street names, jettisoning old names for civic features, jettisoning Guy Fawkes for Matariki, and aiming for some sort of bilingual city by 2040 (a city with one of the smallest proportion of Maori in New Zealand). The Dominion-Post is keen to preserve its social justice warrior credentials, so gratuitously compares Queen Victoria to Lenin and Stalin (eponymous cities in Russia now renamed), but still somewhat surprisingly it ends on a note of “Stick with Vic”.
There seems to be a huge amount of guilt, perhaps even shame, about our heritage among the Wellington (and no doubt non-Wellington) liberals. I’m a bit surprised our mayor and his deputy haven’t been out campaigning not just to drop “Victoria” from the university name, but to replace it with primarily a Maori name. Perhaps University of Te Whanganui-a-Tara (the Maori name for Wellington harbour)? After all, the Duke of Wellington is hardly someone today’s liberals will admire. Or calling for Mt Victoria to be renamed (or its scrubby companion on whose lower slopes I’m typing this, Mt Albert). Not content with having relegated the city’s statue of Queen Victoria to the remote fringe of the inner city decades ago, some of them are probably keen to junk it altogether. These days Victoria University includes what used to be the teachers’ college, and primary school teachers now seem to see it as their goal to make kids rather ashamed of their heritage (my 11 year old is doing colonisation at the moment, and we have long discussions in which I remind her that, for all its faults and failings (captured in her little hand-drawn poster above the dinner table marking “exploitation, murder and robbery”), New Zealand was – and in many respects still is – one of the finest countries in the world). These days an increasing number of official government agencies aren’t even content to leave the country with its proper name, New Zealand, slipping in an “Aotearoa” whenever they can.
As I say, I’m a bit puzzled at the way the liberals have emerged to defend the Victoria name for the university. I’m pleased they have, but even if somehow they win this time, I can’t imagine the success will last long. Even if Professor Guilford himself is simply after more money, and an implausible increase in foreign student numbers, it surely won’t be long until the crusaders will be coming for any names associated with our colonial heritage, Victoria University of Wellington among them.