NZ universities & what the market will bare

In case you missed it, earlier this week NZ’s largest university posted on its website a picture of a bikini-clad recent graduate posing seductively in the surf, for the publicity. It got it, of course.

The university staff union objected. Of course. It labelled the piece “one of the most banal news features emanating from a university this year.” (This decade is more like it.) And within hours the picture was replaced by a head and shoulders shot.

NZers were then treated to lengthy treatments of the story on what passes for “current affairs” TV here. This included the host of the supposedly more serious show interviewing the glamorous graduate. I’m not sure that John Campbell’s reputation for seriousness was enhanced, I’m fairly certain that Massey University’s reputation for brainy graduates was not, but I guess the University’s PR staff revelled in the publicity.

At one level the event raises questions about the continuing use of the sexualised female body to sell things, and the wider consequences. Elements of the news media have instead sought to portray the union as fuddy duddies and prudes. [Update: the Tabloid on Sunday says that the union President should “get out … more”.]

That’s wrong. The objectification of women is not a trivial issue. When a university posts this type of picture on its website it reinforces widely held views about female sexuality and its availability, and adds its authority to these views. Others will no doubt have more to say about this, and say it with more weight than me.

At another level, we might ask what this event tells us about the state of NZ’s tertiary education system. Is it a sympton of the decay that some say followed the imposition of the market-led model since the 1980s?

The authors of Crisis of Identity?, a study of the effects of these reforms, argued that the best American universities “retain a more robust sense of themselves as embodying an academic mission, and more clearly understand that it is the academic mission which confers on them their distinctive social purposes, than seems to be the case with our universities.”

It is fitting that the university that sought to use the sexualised image of a partly-clad woman to sell university education is the one that embraced the market-led approach most vigorously. Today, Massey University is NZ’s largest university by number of students because it pursued a strategy of growth by acquisition and expansion from the early 1990s. It epitomises the reforms.

It did not concentrate on doing those things that universities traditionally do. Thus, in the 2006 research assessment exercise it ranked a poor sixth out of NZ’s eight universities, out-scoring only the two most recent entrants into the university club. Perhaps it needs to focus more on the unique academic mission that it has as a university, and less on gratuitous sexualised self-promotion.

[Declaration of interest: In the past I have held office at branch level in the Association of University Staff.]

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