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The figures supplied to the Otago Daily Times by the New Zealand Union of Students' Associations (NZUSA) show Otago University spent $2.227 million.
The tertiary institution - including polytechnics and other providers - which spent the most overall was Unitec, which spent $4.834 million, followed by the Open Polytechnic, which spent $3.462 million, and then Otago University.
The total spend for all tertiary institutions in New Zealand was $30.742 million.
The figures were compiled by AC Nielsen, which monitors different advertising mediums and comes up with a total figure using set advertising rates. The figure does not include the amount each tertiary institution spent on their marketing departments.
Otago University spent $930,529 on outdoor advertising, $692,700 on television advertising, $248,839 on radio advertising, $220,870 on advertising printed in magazines, $134,106 on newspaper advertising and $428 on unaddressed mail.
Otago Polytechnic's total spend was $419,705.
NZUSA executive director Dr Alistair Shaw said the level of spending was a waste of public money.
"Essentially institutions are spending money, which they should be spending on teaching and research and community service, to shift students between institutions." Dr Shaw did, however, appreciate that Otago University was in a unique situation because it drew most of its students from outside the Dunedin region.
NZUSA believed students would be able to make much better choices about where to study if independent information about the best institution for different courses was provided.
Otago University director of marketing and communications Virginia Nicholls said it was important that it ran an advertising campaign because it drew a larger proportion of its students from outside its catchment area than any other institution.
The current "Your Place in the World" campaign had been tested and shown to resonate well with students, she said.