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By any other name?

28 February 2019 | news

This week’s release of university subject rankings underlines the value of maintaining a good reputation. A good name—for universities as well as for individuals—can mean everything: money, success, higher rankings!

The term ‘university’ is protected under New Zealand law. Universities New Zealand recently requested an organisation change its marketing material—referring to itself as a ‘New Zealand Universities Graduate College’—as it was potentially in breach of the Education Act.

What is a university?  That’s already defined by law and it relates particularly to the level and quality of teaching and research undertaken by an institution. The law says you can apply to become a university if you meet the requirements, which are clearly set out in the Education legislation. Similarly, it describes what is a polytechnic and what is a wānanga.

UNZ has no problem with institutions that meet the statutory definition of a “university” being allowed to adopt that title. Provision already exists for them to do so on application to the Minister. AUT did just this in 2000 when it became a university.

But we are concerned when organisations use the term without going through this step, meaning they do not meet the legal definition of a university.

That term is protected under legislation to avoid unintentionally confusing or deliberately misleading students, parents and future employers—both here and overseas.

New Zealand is one of the few countries to have all its universities ranked within the top 3% of 17,500 universities globally.  Our university system is so well regarded internationally that it attracts over 27,000 international students each year who contribute more than $1.1 billion annually to our economy—making it our fourth largest export earner.

While we take this for granted, it’s not the case in many countries, where it’s often “buyer beware”.  There, students need to work out for themselves if the education they are investing in is of high quality and likely to lead to good jobs or is of low quality and likely to just produce debt. That’s not as easy as it sounds—anyone still interested in going to Trump University? Over 3000 students were paid compensation for getting poor quality ‘degrees’ that left them with little but debt.

The risks to New Zealand’s reputation are real. Damage was done to New Zealand’s reputation in recent year by some PTE providers offering dodgy tertiary qualifications—marked by low completion rates and rampant plagiarism—and peddling them as a fast track to residency.

Universities New Zealand will remain vigilant on this issue. And we will take action when necessary.