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Chris Ford: Otago University and its backing of the Highlanders - another sign of free market priorities in tertiary education

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

I am disappointed by the decision of my old alma mater - the University of Otago - to sponsor the Otago Highlanders Super 15 rugby side.

Yes, I am somewhat of a rugby fan. Yes, I don't object to sports teams being sponsored by private companies and individuals. But when it comes to the University sponsoring a rugby team, questions need asking about where are its priorities? After all, there have been recent cuts to teaching and services at the University in response to the National Government's silent cuts to the sector.

On one level, some would argue, you couldn't blame the Uni for seeking to promote itself given the circumstances. The argument goes that marketing the university through sponsoring a rugby team will, in the longer-term, produce additional fee revenue which, in turn, will support more teaching at the institution.

However, this argument has been disproven by research conducted by the former New Zealand University Students Association some years ago. Their research looked at whether advertising had any influence on a prospective student's choices in choosing which tertiary institution they studied at. The research found that advertising had no real impact at all given that students were more influenced by other factors including, for example, reputation, where their friends/family had studied previously, and what subject areas they wanted to specialise in.

Therefore, universities and other tertiary institutions have expended hundreds of millions of dollars in a wasteful exercise during the last two decades in trying to persuade students to part with thousands of dollars  to study at their particular institution. In order to do so, tertiary institutions have developed multi-million dollar marketing budgets to sustain these endless advertising campaigns.

And all this has come at a cost. As the Otago University branch of the Tertiary Education Union (TEU) has stated with respect to the Highlanders sponsorship, the money could have been better directed to supporting quality teaching, research and community outreach instead.

After all, teaching and scholarship are the core activities of any institution of higher learning. In saying this, I have no objection to any university or polytechnic sponsoring tertiary conferences or associated projects at all. But sponsoring a sporting team whose fortunes (as do all such teams) waver is a step too far and one which, so far, few other tertiary providers have chosen to wade into either locally or internationally - and with good reason.

In saying all this, I have an immense amount of respect for the University's current Vice Chancellor, Professor Harlene Hayne. I find this decision of her and her colleagues, though, to be an extremely disappointing one. I do have some sympathy for the fact that tertiary institutions have had to do non-traditional things in the cut throat free market environment to survive. But this is something they would not have to do if governments decently funded tertiary education and, accordingly, abolished tertiary fees and paid all students a living allowance (which, in my view, is the best incentive of all to encourage students to study anywhere they choose).

In other words, the de-marketisation of tertiary education would end the need for any institution - whether it is Otago University or any other - to market itself in this way.  For sure, the Highlanders can have any sponsor they like - provided it's from the private sector! I think the public sector should start veering away from sponsoring anything other than activities which are public minded or spirited. And in this vein, I would like to see my old almer mater start the ball rolling in this respect through reconsidering their decision to sponsor the Highlanders.

That's the best thing they could do right now!

 

 

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