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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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9 Responses to Grant Guilford, Vice-Chancellor, Victoria University of Wellington, NZ

  1. Professor Guilford’s comments regarding the nature of opposition to the proposal to change Victoria University of Wellington are completely inaccurate and utterly unbecoming of a Vice Chancellor, and they confirm that the consultation was not conducted in good faith if he is so ready to dismiss opposition on these grounds.

    Rather than trying to dismiss opposition as being insincere on the basis of my involvement in it (me being the “social media experts” he refers to). he would do better to acknowledge that the University’s consultation and communication with its community was so poor that it took the efforts of me, sitting at home on a Friday night when I’d first heard about the name change, to kick off a petition opposing the name change that now has over 11,000 signatures.

    While I can’t speak for those behind the #StickWithVic Facebook page as I’ve organised my petition separately to them, I have not spent a single dollar promoting this petition. Instead, it has been shared by thousands of people who – on reading the case put forward by the university – do not agree that the name change will deliver the supposed benefits the Vice Chancellor claims.

    Trying to dismiss this as “professional opposition” is unprofessional behaviour from an academic who should know better. This petition was spread by email, through social media, and by word of mouth by people who opposed the change. They shared it with their families, their friends, their colleagues, and their alumni networks.

    As an almuni of Victoria University of Wellington, I am completely disgusted by the Vice Chancellor’s behaviour and I believe it has made his position to lead the university untenable.

  2. The reality is not as claimed by the Vice Chancellor. A detailed analysis of the case against the name proposal is at, Some of the hundreds of opposing submissions are at The Facebook page cited by the VC is at His claim that the university has “a very high likelihood” of overturning the Minister’s decision is improbable. The Minister told the University Council it had not made out its case and sent them back to try again. The Courts are unlikely to differ from that decision. The name change proposal would replace VUW’s 120 year history of international success as a university with a new and different “brand” of unknown value. This will not happen. The ONLY “misinformation” has come from a University Council which faces major opposition from students, alumni, staff, and the community, as documented in the references I have given.

  3. Prof Guilford,
    Why can you not see there is massive opposition to a name change. There is no “misinformation” about it. A large majority of alumni (presumably reasonably intelligent people) just cannot be ignored. Your confusion reasons are fatuous.

  4. Our university has always been known as Victoria University Of Wellington. It would be hard to understand why any potential student checking us out, and who we might like to attract, would be silly enough to not understand that this is Wellington, capital city of NZ. Would we want somebody like this?? !!

  5. V.C. Guilford is ignorant of history. Victoria University of Wellington is tied in with the old province of Wellington, not the city of Wellington. The four long established universities were all named after the provinces, Auckland, Canterbury, Otago and Wellington. To claim is the university of the capital is to expunge truth and reality.

  6. this is all marketing bullshine as if Vic just opened its doors yesterday. Its the degree that counts. no the name and guilford is just another plastic person trying to put his mark on something that doesn’t belong to him.

  7. Victoria Uni Alumni has been rejected the name change but 6 member academic council including the Grant Gilbert were keen to name change for unknown silly reason. Victoria university has been related to the Queen Victoria and long history of international recognisation. Vice Chancellor cannot make a overnight decision on a national interest because someone did not like to fund the university, or other unrecognised university possess the similar sounding names. Its very unprofessional for vice chancellor to be political and make a comment. Other option Professor Gilbert has is to resign and find a new job. There is no name change conspiracy or dirty politics for him to win. There is nothing to do with the court. Court cannot rule what the name should be the and beyond it’s jurisdiction rather more of legislative decision.

  8. “I think you have to be very clear about the things that guide your university….. so even though it’s an unpopular decision you know what it’s about.”
    “I know best”, despite many opposing submissions and a petition with thousands of supporters – a hint of arrogance here?

  9. Grant Guilford’s assertion that “Initially, it started off with very little interest.” distorts the truth. When I first heard about the change, I asked someone I knew at Victoria about it, and his opinion was that there would be no support for the idea and it would not happen. Obviously, most people initially thought that and didn’t bother to attend the meetings. When people did turn up, later in the process, they said that there was little opportunity to debate, and that the VC or his representatives merely laid out what was going to happen. The attendees were not allowed to put their side of the argument.

    The VC denigrates the opposition to the change as “political lobbyists” and a “sponsored campaign” and a “professional opposition”. I for one am not sponsored. The idea is a joke. I do have a lot of time to post, as I’m retired, and I’m not a political lobbyist. The VC’s conspiracy theory doesn’t hold water.

    I don’t buy the VC’s argument about “institutional autonomy”. The Education Minister does not interfere in the running of the University, but an Act of Parliament requires that the Minister rules on the specific issue of a name change. As I see it Minister of Education’s role is to, among other things, serve to rein in any unbridled ambitions in any of the VCs in the country and not just VC Guilford.

    It is significant that the University has changed the name of the student portal from “MyVictoria” to “MyTools”. The student newspaper jokes that someone asked if they had renamed Victoria University of Wellington to “Tools University”.

    Joking aside, this shows the arrogance of the VC in trying to subvert the ruling of the Minister. And all this is for what? A possible 3 – 5% increase in the number of International students.

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