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Grant Guilford, Vice-Chancellor, Victoria University of Wellington, NZ

Universities are increasingly global brands, but it can be hard if your brand bears a striking resemblance to another. VUW vice-chancellor Grant Guilford spoke with The PIE News about changing the university’s name, and what’s next after the NZ education minister rejected their request.


Photo: The PIEPhoto: The PIE

"We're keen to be in the vicinity of 18-20% international students"

The PIE: Tell us about your university.

“If your brand isn’t distinctive, it’s very hard to get the prestige from the things you do”

Grant Guilford: We are a capital city university in Wellington. We’re very strong in humanities, law and public policy, and have a good business school, triple crown accredited. We’re also rapidly developing in the natural sciences and engineering that suits Wellington. Electronics and computer science, the creative side of engineering.

We have a headcount of about 22,000, so about 18,000 equivalent full-time students. We have around about 3,000 full-time international students.

The PIE: I’ve heard there are plans to double that?

GG: We’re aiming for sustainable growth over a 20-year period with a view to getting around 30,000 equivalent full-time students. That’s to give us the scale to create the impact that we want to create with our graduates in terms of our community.

The PIE: Are there any goals to increase international student numbers?

GG: They come to about 15% of the student body, and we’re keen to be in the vicinity of 18-20% but we’re not trying to be any higher than that at this stage.

The PIE: Your university has been in The PIE News recently because of the decision to change the name to the University of Wellington. What is the rationale behind that?

GG: We’re a very high-quality university from a research standpoint, we’re currently ranked number one in New Zealand and we’re very confident in our teaching quality. But that’s not translating to an international reputation.

We began to do work about why that might be, and quite quickly it became apparent that the things we achieve, that gain international notice, are usually announced as being from Victoria University, not Victoria University of Wellington. In particular, we are being confused by the two in Canada and Australia.

That’s the challenge for us. If your brand isn’t clear and distinctive, it’s very hard to get the prestige from the things you do to stick to your name and generate that global reputation.

The PIE: Some of the criticisms of the name change were that there wasn’t enough community consultation, what is your response to that?

GG: We would definitely disagree with that. We went through a protracted period of consultation.

“We are being confused by the Victoria Universities in Canada and Australia”

The reason that you’ve got that opinion is partly because there is a significant opposition from alumni who know the only way to attack a consultation process is on the process itself. We’re having a lot of misinformation spread.

We also found that it was difficult to engage our alumni or our students on the matter. We emailed 55,000 alumni and got about 2,000 to engage. With our students, we ended up with 200 submissions. We used advertising channels, public forums and social media and all the devices we could to get the message out.

Initially, it started off with very little interest. I had public meetings with only two or three people in them. Once a couple of people got concerned it might happen, we had political lobbyists crack into gear, we had social media experts crack into gear.

Sponsored posts created [around social media campaign] #StickWithVic, misinformation about what we’re trying to do and why we’re trying to do it. That angered people and got the whole thing on a roll. There’s a very professional opposition being created to what we think is a good idea.

The PIE: How do you manage that sort of opposition?

GG: I think you’ve got to be very clear about the things that guide your university so even though it’s an unpopular decision, you know what you’re about. In this particular case, it’s about what’s right for the institution. As a vice-chancellor and council, you have to look forward.

What we see when we look forward is a world where there is competition between global brands and the country brand.

If we can’t rely on the safety, environmental consciousness and various other reasons why students might want to visit New Zealand, we’ve got to be out there with a global reputation that keeps us going.

We see that most acutely now in EdX. Our work goes out there sitting right alongside 60 other universities and it’s a competition between brands as to which page is opened.

The PIE: Were global research partnerships a consideration as well?

GG: If you think about the reasons you need a good global reputation, one is the recruitment of top staff. We’re not going to go very far unless we’re an attractive place and like it or not, academics do not like moving from a university with high reputation to a lower ranked university.

“There’s a very professional opposition being created to a good idea”

There are partnering opportunities denied to you unless you have a good global reputation, some by governments and others just by the lack of interest from other vice-chancellors or presidents.

Donors are more interested in investing in highly ranked institutions. They see their money going places, being more effective in those institutions.

75% of the choice of international students is dictated by prestige. Rankings are a proxy for that.

The PIE: In December, education minister Chris Hipkins denied the request to change the universities name. What are your future moves?

GG: [We’ve] received independent legal advice on the minister of education’s decision to decline the University Council’s recommendation to change the name to University of Wellington. The university considers that there is a very high likelihood the minister’s decision has not been lawfully made.

Furthermore, the minister’s decision creates considerable uncertainty over the responsibilities and accountabilities of university councils and poses risks to the institutional autonomy of universities in New Zealand.

The decision, even though it’s just about our name, has much broader ramifications for the way the minister acts in New Zealand’s university system. That’s created a dilemma for us. We’ve got to think through whether we do review the minister’s decision, because of those wider concerns.

“You don’t want to be fighting with your education minister if you can avoid it”

The PIE: Will taking a fight to the government will have other ramifications?

GG: There always is a concern about biting the hand that feeds you, but our education act is structured to provide universities a critic and conscience role. I’ve taken a number of soundings on this from concerned alumni. They are very strongly of a view that if the minister’s decisions don’t look like they may be lawful, a university should be the one place that stands up to those, and you should take the consequences of standing up because that’s what you’re there for.

From a vice-chancellor’s standpoint, institutional autonomy is a precious thing. Without that we don’t have academic freedom, and every possible assault on that needs be taken seriously. Even though you could say ‘oh well, we’ll let that one go’, next time round it gets harder.

But it’s not a situation you want to be in. You don’t want to be there fighting with your education minister if you can possibly avoid it.

The PIE: And of course, you’re both in the same city…

GG: Yeah, we see a lot of each other!

The PIE: Outside of the name changes, what are the plans for the university moving forward?

GG: Our main focus is around partnering in selective markets and changing the product mix so that we’ve got more taught masters.

From a values standpoint, we’re very concerned about the relevance of our teaching to the country of origin of our students as well as our own country. Truly educating via global partnering, because only about a third of international students stay in New Zealand and the rest go home.

So how do we actually make sure those students have an education that’s relevant to their home country as well. That’s part of a broader curriculum review that we are undertaking.

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