Editorial: Varsity blues not for SIT

Last updated 05:00 21/09/2013

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OPINION: Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt's ambition for the Southern Institute of Technology to become a university is more fanciful than inspirational.

Even the institute's chief executive, Penny Simmonds, believes it is unlikely the SIT would try to register as a university unless the Government changes its tertiary education policy.

This from an administrator who came up with the audacious Zero Fees scheme, so she could hardly be called a stick-in-the-mud traditionalist.

It's true that if the institute (previously called a polytech) was able to label itself a university, its capacity to turn heads recruiting students from overseas, particularly Asian countries, would be mightily enhanced. As Mr Shadbolt says, overseas markets have "no concept" of the term polytech.

It is simultaneously, and also regrettably, true that many a hard-case organisation now markets itself as a university in ways that do rather debase the currency.

We're thinking of good old McDonald's Hamburger University, founded in 1961 in the basement of a McDonald's restaurant in Elk Grove Village, Illinois.

Or that seat of higher learning for scrapbookers, Creating Keepsakes University. Or Life University, which it turns out is a school for chiropractors. Or the deliriously titled Maharishi University of Management, whose student body would surely be looking around for a Beatles endorsement.

Or Philander University, which for all its School for Scoundrels connotations might actually might be legit and just have an unfortunate name.

Clearly the SIT does not belong in that company. But its shop window, so to speak, must befit the contents inside.

It does offer postgraduate-level courses but those courses scarcely define the institute as a whole and the perhaps dreary fact of the matter is that New Zealand has rather stiffer rules than the United States about which organisations are permitted into the fold.

Under the Education Act 1989, it's an offence for an institute to call itself a university unless it is registered as such. And that is a high hurdle. Just ask the Unitec Institute of Technology in Auckland, which is a large and redoubtable body that has fought an anguished campaign to muscle into the ranks of registered universities. Many years and millions of dollars later, it is still just an institute.

This is not sniffy elitism. For one thing, the Auckland University of Technology was promoted to glory in 2000, so it can be done.

However, the internationally recognised characteristics of a true university include not only higher entry qualifications, but staff qualifications, leading students not only to advanced learning but also intellectual independence.

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There's also typically a commitment to devoting time and resources to pure research, with peer-reviewed published work. And a component of being the critic and conscience of society.

Though the SIT has registered the names "University of New Zealand Ltd" and "Southern University of New Zealand Ltd", Ms Simmons has made it clear that this is simply a case of having dibs on those names should the rules for university status change in the SIT's favour.

That's what would need to happen. In the meantime, there's a great deal to be said for the SIT delivering the goods for the students who invest their time, money, in fact their lives, in its courses. If it does right by them, and they leave equipped with the skills and prospects that they were promised, then the institute's reputation will grow, significantly, on that basis. Which is how it should be.

- The Southland Times

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