Lincoln University drives into the rough

[This post was first published in the Fairfax NZ Sunday Star Times on 15 June 2014]

Lincoln University is New Zealand’s land-based university, with a special focus on agriculture and related industries. In recent years, the University has been facing hard times. This is despite the resurgence of New Zealand’s agricultural industries, and the export dominance of agri- food products.

This year the situation at Lincoln has reached crisis point. The University has been shedding academic and other positions in an attempt to balance the books.

The current shedding of staff involves a net decrease of 53 staff through a combination of voluntary redundancies, enhanced early retirements, and compulsory redundancies. Inevitably, the loss of staff is going to affect delivery capacity. The question now is whether Lincoln can survive in its present form.

There are two factors that have led to the current crisis. The first is that funding has for many years been inadequate for the industry-focused courses that have been the backbone of Lincoln. However, the key difference in the last two years is that Lincoln has been pursuing new growth strategies that have to date not delivered on the promise. The policies have added additional cost that has far exceeded any additional returns.

First, new management positions were added. Then, new marketing and business development positions were created. The marketing spend is now at least $6 million of direct costs, but ancillary marketing costs would take the overall cost higher. The University’s Research Office has also expanded and continues to do so. These are all overhead costs that have to be met from somewhere.

The University has also undertaken curriculum reforms. These were supposed to save teaching costs, with the process driven from above rather than by academics. Everything was rushed, and there was a lack of understanding of curriculum practicalities. One outcome was a predictable lack of course information for prospective new students in 2014, and this contributed to a considerable decline in first year enrolments.

Lincoln’s land-based vision has been embraced by most Lincoln staff but not by all. In particular, the University has many staff in the Commerce Faculty who were employed 10 to 15 years ago when Lincoln had much broader aspirations in relation to generic commerce. These staff have no background and in many cases no natural empathy in relation to the land and agribusiness industries.

For a land-based university, some of the staff losses that are now occurring are remarkable. For example, in the broad animal production field, including nutrition, parasites and animal management, Lincoln has only three lecturers and a professor. The three lecturers – all well-known for their specific expertise – are now competing for two positions. There was a time when Lincoln had a whole Department of Agricultural Engineering, but the current contraction has further reduced numbers from two to one academic staff. In recent years Lincoln has had three academic lawyers who taught land, property, resource management and business law. All of them are going. Entomology, biochemistry, animal genetics, organics, horticulture production and studies of rural labour have also been hit.

My own field of agricultural management, including farm management, horticultural management and agribusiness, has been required to lose three positions. This is despite our farm management and agribusiness courses having many more students than elsewhere in the university. In fact, staff losses in this area will be considerably greater than required, with additional staff now sufficiently frustrated that they are seeking alternative careers. So far four teaching staff plus the only research officer have either gone or are going, with further resignations likely. I am puzzled as to how courses will be taught in 2015.

The criteria for staff reductions are surprising. Within much of the University, the only criterion has been the number of courses to be taught, with no notice taken of the number of students per course. In addition, the 2014 enrolments patterns, with high enrolments in some land-related areas and very low enrolments in other areas, have been explicitly ignored. It seems that internal power structures have won out over logic. My own Department has formally expressed no confidence in both the senior management of the Faculty to which it belongs, and the greatly flawed process.

Each University in New Zealand is managed by a Vice Chancellor (VC) who reports to a Council. Lincoln’s VC, Dr Andrew West, has been explicit that he hopes to restructure only once in an attempt to ensure financial viability. However, that seems an unlikely scenario. The current restructuring is accentuating the gap between Lincoln’s Vision and the implementation thereof.

Fundamental questions now have to be asked as to the viability of Lincoln as an independent institution. The management and marketing costs are too large for a small institution to carry. The future for Lincoln can be one of two alternatives. It can be a lean institution that truly focuses on its areas of land-based specialisation, or it can become, as it once was, a College within Canterbury University. Either way, the challenges are considerable.

About Keith Woodford

Keith Woodford is an independent consultant, based in New Zealand, who works internationally on agri-food systems and rural development projects. He holds honorary positions as Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University, New Zealand, and as Senior Research Fellow at the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University, Wellington.
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3 Responses to Lincoln University drives into the rough

  1. This is an interesting post by Professor Woodford, but unfortunately not all Lincoln academic staff feel the same way he does about Lincoln’s reforms. Firstly, Lincoln is trading at an annual loss. This situation cannot be allowed to continue, so either costs need to be reduced, or income increased. Both approaches are being used by the University’s managers.

    One way of reducing cost is to reduce staffing, and while that could be taken to mean that “delivery capacity” might reduce (quoting Professor Woodford), one needs to be careful not to confuse capacity and quality. The latter is more important in a tertiary institution, especially one where teaching MUST be research-led. I have seen nothing to suggest the quality of delivery will be compromised at Lincoln.

    It must also be noted that some of the facts and figures quoted by Professor Woodford would seem to be incorrect. While he talks of “three lecturers and a professor” in nutrition, parasites and animal management, I am not sure how he derives those figures. As one of the three Professors that I consider to be active in that area, I count at least nine lecturing staff in total (plus at least another four ancilliary staff), although I accept that three (of the nine positions) are being reduced to two in the current restructuring

    I also have no specific concerns about teaching quality in animal science being compromised, and in the context of the qualification reforms that Professor Woodford mentions, I do not think these reforms were either “driven from above” or “rushed”. I will however admit a vested interest in as much as I fully engaged the whole process at both the course and programme level and so as to insure we had superior offerings upon completion of the process. For reasons unknown, some staff chose not to engage.

    Lincoln University has some exciting initiatives underway, including a number of new developments across New Zealand that will make an agricultural education available to many more people, and not just at the University level. In the context of the recently released figures from MPI on future demand for skilled people in the primary industries, I am happy to be part of those initiatives and proud to be supportive of the College (now University) that provided me with an education and a career that spans the last 26 years.

    Professor Jon Hickford
    Lincoln University
    Immediate Past-President of the NZ Institute of Agricultural and Horticultural Science

    • Keith Woodford says:

      There appears to be one thing that Jon Hickford and I agree on and several things that we don’t agree on.

      We are agreed that these are very difficult times for Lincoln and that something had to be done. Vice Chancellor Andy West would also presumably agree with that statement, given that he has publicly said that without the staff reductions everyone at Lincoln might be out of a job.

      The suggestion that 53 net positions can be lost without impact on delivery would seem rather naïve. It is certainly not the case in my area where, in farm and horticultural management, the required reduction amongst lecturing and research staff is 36% (3 academic staff and a research officer). The actual reduction to date is 45%.

      The relevant document setting out the reduction in animal science refers to degree level teaching in ‘production animal science’ reducing from three to two academic staff. Those were not my words. They come from the official document. The suggestion that Lincoln really has nine positions in this area is interesting. I think it refers to a broader area. If it does not, then corralling three staff to fight for two positions, rather than nine staff to compete for eight positions, would seem to be ‘targeting’. That is contrary to employment law. Why have other staff in supposedly the same area been protected? The reality is that Person A has an international reputation in strategies for parasite management linked to optimising sheep production. No-one else at Lincoln has this expertise. Person B is Lincoln’s only ruminant nutrition specialist that I can identify, and also has an exceptionally high community profile relating to wintering systems based particularly on brassicas and fodder beet. I see no-one else with this expertise. Person C specialises in the animal and plant interactions which are fundamental to New Zealand’s pastoral systems.

      If Lincoln’s curriculum reforms were so successful then why have first year degree students in most of Lincoln’s degrees declined so markedly this year? My understanding is that even within the senior management team there is some new acknowledgement that the curriculum reform, particularly in relation to generic commerce, has failed.

      Keith Woodford

  2. Pingback: Rural round-up | Homepaddock

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