To grasp why the push to change has caused such a fuss, and to appreciate why it’s so muddle-minded, we need to consider how the university got its name, and what names mean to the university community, writes André Brett
Universities are funny things. They have evolved from rarefied campuses of privileged elites into mass educators, research pioneers, creative spaces, activist hubs, and many things besides. And for each university, a few well-chosen words convey great meaning: their name.
Victoria University of Wellington – VUW to take the formal abbreviation, Vic for the locals – has found itself at the centre of a storm after its council made the draft decision to drop “Victoria” from the name.
To understand why this has caused such a fuss, and to appreciate why it’s such a dreadful idea, it is necessary to address two things: how the university got its name, and what names mean to the university community.
In the 1890s, the then University of New Zealand had university colleges in three cities: Auckland, Christchurch, and Dunedin. The last of those three predated the national institution and only federated with it in 1874 on the condition of retaining its name as the University of Otago. Names mattered in those days, too.
Prominent men from the “Middle Districts” pushed for another university college. Prime Minister Richard Seddon (then styled Premier) came around to the idea in 1897 after attending Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in London. This institution could have been established anywhere in the Middle Districts – Masterton, Nelson, and Picton were all advanced.
Much like in 1865 when these districts competed to be the capital city, Wellington had the leading claim. It secured the Victoria University College, which became Victoria University of Wellington at the University of New Zealand’s dissolution in 1961.
It is remarkable that the university is named for a woman. This was not replicated elsewhere in Australasia until 1991, when the Western Australian College of Advanced Education attained university status as Edith Cowan University.
They remain the two universities in Australasia named for women. A few others take the name of a city/state that was, in turn, named for a woman, such as the Universities of Adelaide and Queensland. Meanwhile 13 in Australia and one in New Zealand, Massey, are named for men.
Women have consistently received a raw deal at tertiary institutions – a disproportionate number of men still occupy senior roles, and too few universities have addressed sexual assault on campus adequately. It is inappropriate that the entire Australasian region be left with just one university named for a woman, especially not when women have contributed so much to the sector’s success despite institutionalised barriers.
Nobody has been clamouring for a name change, not even fervent advocates that New Zealand become a republic. I support a republic, but it is fitting that a university be named after Queen Victoria as our head of state for more than 60 years. She also transcends party politics in a way that Massey and some Australian examples (Curtin and Deakin Universities, for example) do not.
So, we have strong historic, gendered, and commemorative reasons to maintain VUW’s name. But you might say it’s only a name. Does it really matter?
Well, I’m not sure you’d be too impressed if I announced a draft decision to change your name to Gertrude. That’s not you. Or, if you are a Gertrude, read as Hazel. If you’re Gertrude Hazel, well done, this article is dedicated to you.
Names are intangible and hard to give a precise value, but the history of education demonstrates that they mean a lot. I recently co-authored a book on higher education reform in Australia, No End of a Lesson. One aspect has particular import for VUW.
John Dawkins, Australia’s minister for education in 1988, consolidated the tertiary sector. He set benchmarks for university status, and any institution that fell short had to merge with another if it wished to retain full federal funding.
Publicly, amalgamations were based on – or scuttled by – questions of location, staffing, research strengths, student offerings, and so on. Behind the scenes, names mattered. They were totemic both of attachments to an institution and anxieties about what might happen to it.
VUW is not going through an amalgamation, but the questions of identity are similar. To Wellingtonians, VUW is Vic. The name connotes one of our oldest and most venerable institutions, one that if we did not attend ourselves we know somebody who did. It has an intangible currency and cadence in Wellington that does not seem particularly remarkable until it is threatened.
The university’s senior management want us to believe that “University of Wellington” represents the local community better and has enhanced appeal to international students. Neither argument can be sustained.
New Zealand, from which VUW draws most of its students and possesses most of its influence, has no doubt who this university is. It’s Vic. Any name change will represent the university’s primary constituency less.
International students are the current river of gold for universities throughout Australasia. They will not be forever. Higher education changes rapidly: 30 years ago, an international student was a novelty in our region. Many universities today are over-exposed to fluctuations in the international market and a wise university would reorient itself cautiously. It is shortsighted to rename a university to chase today’s target demographic.
And will it even stimulate international enrolments? More talented statisticians and analysts than me have observed that the supposedly pro-change outcomes of VUW’s consultation, limited in scope and promotion, are within the margin of error. The name has minor significance to international applicants; they want a quality education and a rounded social life. Emphasising New Zealand’s desirability might boost enrolments; omitting one word won’t.
VUW faces challenges, but an identity crisis is not one of them. There is a crisis – of casualisation within academia. Staff need secure contracts to teach and research at full potential. Student services require improvement, as does accessibility. The money spent on rebranding could employ multiple additional academics. Does anyone seriously think removing “Victoria” from signage and letterhead is more important than hiring brilliant minds?
Vice-chancellor Grant Guilford claims that opponents of change have insufficient confidence in Wellington. He might appreciate how insulting this strawman argument is when it is reversed to suggest that the proposed name change suggests a lack of confidence in senior management and marketing to promote VUW. If he thinks that great universities must share their name with a city, he must not rate Harvard University, and if misattributions in citation databases are such a bugbear, he’s going to be pleased to know these have simple digital fixes (and happen to researchers everywhere).
Perhaps the only argument in favour of “University of Wellington” is simplicity. But one extra word is no great complication, especially when single-syllable Vic is so common. And management must realise the new abbreviation will provide no disambiguation: need I point to the University of Waikato? Or Warwick or Washington or Warsaw? UW/UOW is common; the current name is distinctive.
The Mutton Birds sang that Wellington is “the cafes and the bars, the music and the theatre, and the old cable cars”. Alan Gregg, author of those lines, could well have added Vic. Not the formal Victoria University of Wellington. Not VUW. Definitely not some denuded University of Wellington. Vic.
Dr André Brett is Vice-Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow in History at another UOW, the University of Wollongong in New South Wales. He is from the Kāpiti Coast and his father majored in chemistry at Vic
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.