University specialisation

“[Robert Stout] went on to elaborate how, in the interests of economy, each [university] college could specialise: Otago in medicine; Canterbury in engineering and agriculture; Auckland, being a maritime city, in astronomy, navigation, mechanical engineering and the like. ‘So far as Wellington is concerned, it is the seat of Parliament and the seat of the Court of Appeal. This city might be prominent for its special attention to jurisprudence, to law, to political science, to history.’ It was a vision that would prove remarkably prescient.”

Victoria University of Wellington 1899 ~ 1999: A History

I happened across this history of Victoria University on the NZETC website. In this passage, Robert Stout is speaking in a parliamentary debate about his vision for a university college in Wellington. (Originally there was one ‘University of New Zealand’ with different ‘colleges’ around the country – eventually they got split up and each called a university in their own right.)

It seems sort of quaint in this day and age to think about each university in NZ specialising in certain subjects, but in some ways it makes a lot of sense. I don’t think the way universities are currently competing against each other for students, and gradually expanding the subjects on offer over time, is rational at all. For instance, do we really need six different universities offering law? There’s some argument for allowing people some choice in where they study, but to me that seems like an extraordinary duplication of resources.

Universities at heart are public institutions – even if they’ve been made to compete for customers under the current model. Maybe we should think about the Government playing a bigger role in reducing overlap between the institutions and reinvesting that money into a better quality education for everyone.

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