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September 24, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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A Hill With A VUW

115 years of students, a university, and a little city called Wellington.



In 1886, then-Minister of Education Robert Stout thought it might be a good idea to have higher education available in our esteemed capital city. Only back then, Wellington wasn’t the bastion of culture that it is today, and Stout met with resistance from a Parliament that found it unconscionable to ‘waste’ resources on Wellington when Masterton, Picton, Nelson, and Blenheim boasted of better economic returns. There’s more to VUW and Wellington than a $25,000 student loan and Sunday coffee at Fidel’s. Let Salient fill you in on what you missed last century. 

In 1897, over a decade later, Stout’s wish was granted when Richard Seddon—then-Prime Minister—returned home from Queen Vic’s 60th jubilee with an honorary doctorate and a need to celebrate the occasion. Ignoring a decade of debate, Seddon convinced a still-skeptical Parliament to pass a bill creating our Uni, and presto, Victoria University College (as it was then known) was born. For the next twenty years, Vic would have a difficult road ahead. Known as the “poor man’s college”, and created at a time when Wellington was in the throes of an anti-intellectualism phase, Vic scraped by on the goodwill of its staff and grants from the government.

the ’10s-’20s:

After suffering through the war, the gods of employment smiled upon VUW by making it an in-demand place of work for budding academics. For the first time ever, the University had departments instead of subjects, part-time assistants, associate professors, and labbies. Some of the staff members were even women! With the troops home, student numbers also increased, and with the increase came a (previously unthinkable) shift away from evening lessons in favour of the less exhausting day-time lectures. Despite this ‘radical’ change, proposals to create departments of social sciences and music were vetoed by Hunter—the namesake of the Hunter Building—himself. Accompanying the University’s growth was the growth of the region. The ’20s saw Wellington expand its suburbs, boroughs, and beaches, creating its first coastal developments (Paraparaumu, who knew?) The city also became a nicer place to live since plumbing and water services finally came up to scratch. Hutt Valley took centre stage as NZ’s motor vehicle and tobacco services capital, bringing hundreds of jobs to the area and, like Victoria, hiring a decent share of women.

the 30s:



The ’30s were a dark time for Vic, rife with problems over money, prestige, and academic freedom. The ’30s brought out the conflicts brewing between radical “morally adventurous” students and the conservative University management. This was in large part due to VUW’s reputation for having the most dangerously liberal student body in NZ, whose intellectual enthusiasm and youthful insubordination was a reflection of Wellington’s changing socio- economic scene. The ’30s saw the establishment of the Political Science department, which also mirrored Wellington’s left-leaning ideas that public service and educated democracy were, you know, worth investing in. Leading the charge was Mayor George Troup, who steered Wellington through the economic depression and gave the city its first airport, National Art Gallery, and a new railway station.

the ’40s:

In the ’40s, VUW science was beginning to hit its stride and labs were overflowing. Also thriving for the first time was the recently established music department. This was partly due to Wellington’s evolving infrastructure and musical culture, which was fed through the arrival of European immigrants in the city and the sounds of their high-minded continent. VUW was also able to extend its reach into the Wellington community through an adult education program, teaching English, economics, and electricity. Wellington, on the other hand, was hosting 20,000 American soldiers in preparation for a seemingly just-around-the-corner Japanese invasion. This scandalised the town for a while and left Wellington with many fond memories and unplanned pregnancies.

the ’50s & ’60s:



These decades saw the economics and commerce departments shine, corresponding to the increasing number of accountancy firms, businesses, and commercial enterprises growing in the Wellington region. Ironically, the city once considered too poor and backwards to support an institution of higher learning was becoming one of the strongest economic regions in the country and had the largest university department to boot. Because it was an era of full employment, immigration increased both locally and Pacifically. 20,000 rural Maori settled in to the Hutt, while Porirua, completed during the ’50s, became home to a slew of new enterprises and job seekers. Many job seekers came in the form of Tokelauans, after a 1966 cyclone ravaged the island, and other Pacific Island peoples who migrated to NZ due to strong demand for labour.

the ’70s & ’80s:



Vic pioneered the Women’s Studies department in 1975 after a steady female presence built up throughout the ’60s. Other universities, perhaps because of their less progressive locations, failed to jump on the feminist-studies bandwagon until the ’90s, when VUW’s own WS department was ironically waning. VUW’s interest in women’s affairs related to the social climate of its city. Wellington had been holding national women’s conventions, and was home to a number of burgeoning feminist art movements. In 1980, the VUW marae (Te Herenga Waka) officially opened. This corresponded with a university response to honoring its newly recognised obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi and expanding Maori culture outside of the idea of it being a ‘special topic’. This came at a time when Wellington was participating in the reclamation of Te Reo Maori. It was home to the Maori Language Week march in 1980, which sought equal status for the Te Reo, and the first kohanga reo (language nest) happened in Lower Hutt. Amidst the cultural resurgance, Wellington was falling victim to government deregulation and workforce layoffs, losing many of its businesses to Auckland.

the ’90s:



This decade saw VUW instituting policies of ‘accountability’ in the wake of Rogernomics. This meant more bureaucracy, but also the introduction of the things we now know as ‘course evaluation forms’. Academically, 1996 saw the timetable changed to the familiar ‘three trimesters per year’ module, and lengthened the days from 8 am starts to 6 pm ends. Notably, the 90s were not the friendliest times to be a student. The politically and financially hectic atmosphere came to a head after student fee and loan changes that saw the number of mature and part-time students fall noticeably. When VUW debated whether it could increase staff salaries without increasing fees, lecturers went on a one-day strike (the first of its kind for a NZ university). Meanwhile, the student loan rate rose steadily, while Vic students were coming to grips with what is now the norm for any student—balancing full time study with part time work. The much-used International Exchange Program was set up while Maori and Pacific Island enrolments rose to their highest levels so far. Wellington began establishing itself as the cultural centre of Aotearoa, opening itself up to the film sector (a la LOTR), unveiling Te Papa, and transforming the waterfront with artsy sculptural pieces.

the 2000s-present:

Most of us lived through this time so it’s all still fresh in our memories. In this decade, Wellington’s ethnic diversity rose, it cemented a reputation for being cultural and vibrant, was home to several prominent arts festivals, hosted numerous sporting events, and is still, a hot bed of political and social debate. The Backbencher burned down but Cuba Street is still awesome. Flight of the Conchords won a Grammy. Blanket Man passed away. VUW-wise, we’ve had to suffer through the Kelburn campus redesign, but more recently, have had VUWSA execs who didn’t steal money, burn flags, or lose the VUWSA van. In the past 12 years, VUW has won a slew of awards and courted world-class teaching staff, yet we’ve seen the downsizing of several key departments and had our access to a quality education diminished because of budget cuts. The Clark years gave way to John Key, but any way you slice it, we’re still stuck with Pat Walsh. ▲

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