University's rugby sponsorship

The University of Otago's sponsorship of the Highlanders rugby team has, predictably, drawn differing reactions.

On one side is the university teachers' union and, probably, a fair number of Otago residents who resent the privileged position of rugby and the favours it has received. The other includes Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull, the University Students' Association president and probably many others.

The opposition of the Tertiary Education Union is to be expected.

It has consistently decried the large spending on marketing by the university and other state-owned education providers. It sees this as wasteful and contributing to unnecessary competition and costs. Any sponsorship or any substantial spending on marketing, whether on rugby or anything else, would therefore be wrong. This view is not without some merit.

Valuable education dollars are spent by tertiary institutions up and down the land as they strive for student numbers. However, the system is structured this way and Otago must compete. Universities have to be on their mettle and marketing is part of the mix.

While there must be concrete reasons for students to come to Dunedin - the quality of the courses and teachers, the facilities, the advantages of living in Dunedin and the like - this needs to backed up by promotion. Substance does require style because image and profile matter, especially for Otago where more than 80% of students come from beyond Dunedin.

So, how effective and appropriate is the Highlanders' deal? Although the cost has not been revealed, the back of players' jerseys act as billboards, seen by many New Zealanders, as well as overseas. On Saturday week, when the Highlanders play the Blues at Forsyth Barr Stadium, the name will be beamed to the crucial Auckland market where many Otago students come from.

Such generic marketing is sometimes criticised because any payback is intangible. But that is the nature of much brand advertising. It creates awareness and works in conjunction with other promotional and motivating impulses.

Certainly, the University of Canberra name is more widely known thanks to its brand being on the Brumbies' Super 15 rugby jersey.

University of Otago roll numbers have slipped a little over the past three years as student loan eligibility has tightened and as the university seeks more emphasis on quality rather than quantity. First-year numbers, nevertheless, have been strong, illustrating the continuing popularity of Otago even as overall demand for university education shows signs of softening.

For the sake of the university and Dunedin, it must be hoped Otago carries on consolidating in part through innovation. The university cannot risk standing still because that will lead, at best, to a declining drift. On this score, the sponsorship shows a determination to seek fresh approaches. It should also be noted the sponsorship, according to vice-chancellor Harlene Hayne, comes out of present marketing budgets rather than being an additional cost.

At the same time, the sponsorship underlines the university's ambivalence about alcohol and ''partying''. It knows Dunedin's reputation for student independence and fun plays well with prospective students but is a decidedly mixed blessing for parents, especially mothers. The university is petrified about publicity from serious harm to students or ugly televised and internet scenes of disorder.

Thus, it has tightened its rules and its attitudes. At the same time, though, the Speight's brand is also on the Highlanders jersey, and the association between rugby and beer is blatant.

It is intriguing the deal has been done under a vice-chancellor of United States origins, where sport is a prominent vehicle for university promotion.

The expectations on the Highlanders this season - stripped of most of the big names and after last season's dismal showing - are as low as they have been.

The university, as much as anybody or any organisation, must now be hoping the Highlanders can show how wrong the pundits are and rise up the Super 15 rankings.

The impact of the two-year sponsorship will, unquestionably, be much more effective if the university can be associated with winners rather than losers. Similarly, success will equate to more viewers and therefore more publicity.

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