Here we go again.

University College of Learning (UCOL) has many fine, successful programmes, such as nursing, culinary arts and hairdressing, but business as usual is never news.

Instead, UCOL is again under scrutiny for cutting arts courses. The perception - and so UCOL's reality - is that when the last Labour government amalgamated Wanganui Polytechnic with UCOL Palmerston North in 2002, making it the biggest local issue in that year's general election, the biggest fear was the loss of "icon" courses in fine arts, fashion and graphic design.

There were substantial financial problems which were the catalyst for amalgamation, but the arts courses were well attended and had international reputations for excellence.


We are left with the impression that, as far as these courses go, UCOL was handed silk purses and have turned them into pig's ears.

The excuses have been that governments have preferred science and engineering-based programmes, and that arts courses around the country have lost numbers - also that the programmes need reconfiguring because they are out-dated. I don't think that explanation entirely holds up.

In business, companies react to changing environments to meet the market. These changes are made as timely initiatives not late reluctant responses to obvious trends telegraphed well in advance.

Big employers in Whanganui such as Affco, Q-West, Tasman Tanning, Cavalier Carpets, Pacific Helmets and others all had to change their products, markets, and operations to meet changes in their markets.

A persistently strong dollar against the US dollar, tariff reductions for foreign imports, and newer and cheaper raw materials or a change in customer appetite meant each of those companies were threatened and had to change the way they did business to survive.

Thank goodness they did.

UCOL blaming a lack of students, outdated programmes, or a preference for other subjects for the loss of student numbers underlines its failure to read trends, recognise opportunities, and its failure to maximise the excellent reputation of these "icon" courses to meet the market.

Other institutions have lost arts programmes, but Whanganui programmes were the best. We had premiums paid internationally to graduates of these courses, so people came not only from around New Zealand but from around the world to attend Wanganui Polytech.

The courses were unique and first among equals.

Not only that, but the Whanganui arts community is strong and supportive and the relationship between that community and UCOL seems to have been neglected rather than mutually supported, leaving most of that community feeling snubbed.

UCOL Whanganui students win prizes nationally and internationally. Its graduates do well and fly high. So the only question to be asked is: "Why is it failing to maximise this success?"

Marketing to prospective students is the only game in town for a tertiary institution. The recurring sentiment is that when it comes to UCOL, we expect Palmerston North to act in the best interests of Whanganui, and how it responds to that is crucial for the future of our city as a learning destination.