Lincoln and Canterbury: is a merger the solution?

[This post was first published in the Fairfax NZ Sunday Star Times on 22 June 2014]

Last week I wrote how Lincoln University is facing hard times, and is shedding lecturing staff in core areas of land-based education. I suggested one solution could be for Lincoln to become much more focused on its true areas of specialisation and to greatly reduce the managerial and marketing spend which has recently ballooned. The other alternative is to link with Canterbury University.

Unfortunately, the first alternative is unlikely to occur. It would require the senior management team to reverse key policies with which they are collectively associated.

So the other alternative of joining with Canterbury University now needs careful scrutiny. The Tertiary Education Commission stated earlier this year that in its opinion New Zealand had too many Universities, and if that really is the case then Lincoln surely has to be first cab off the rank. Also, Lincoln’s Vice Chancellor (VC) himself said some two years back that, if his proposed growth strategy failed, then the alternative would be to join “the fine university down the road”.

Both enrolment and financial numbers tell a stark story. Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) figures show that in 2013 Lincoln University, including its Telford Division, had only 2740 New Zealand full-time equivalent students. Those numbers were a decline of 342 students from one year earlier, but even that included 174 unfunded students that did not meet Government funding criteria. Figures for 2014 are still not known, but the initial ‘Single Data Return’ (SDR) to Government in April this year suggests 2014 numbers will be several hundred less than the already disastrous numbers for 2013.

The financial story reflects the enrolment decline. Lincoln’s overall financial contribution from Government is down $4.7million this year, and student fees will also be down, probably about $1.5 million. This is even after allowing for yet another ‘earthquake compensation payment’. Given that this is the last year of these compensation payments from the Government, a further income reduction next year of at least $3 million, and probably considerably more, looks likely.

The size of Lincoln’s financial deficit this year is yet to be determined, but it will be many millions. Restructuring costs associated with redundancies and early retirements are adding several million dollars, and it has been widely reported within the University, although yet to be publicly confirmed, that Lincoln is using earthquake insurance payments for operational purposes. Those payments should have been for capital rebuilding.

If Lincoln were to join Canterbury University then it could become Canterbury’s sixth College, with a clear focus on the land-based sciences and agri-food systems. The Vice Chancellors Office of 14 staff would largely become redundant with an immediate saving of about $2 million, to be replaced by one Head of College to whom departmental heads would report. The multi-million budget for management and marketing consultants would also disappear.

As a College, Lincoln would no longer need to market itself in a desperate bid for more students. This would save an additional several million dollars.

One of the ironies is that student numbers are currently at fully viable levels across the key land-based programs of Agricultural Science, Agricultural Commerce, Viticulture, Landscaping, and the new Agribusiness and Food Marketing degree. In my own area of ‘pasture to plate’ agri-food systems, including rural development, we have for years been turning away good postgraduate research students through lack of staff. That problem is now getting worse.

In contrast, a key problem area is generic commerce where numbers have been collapsing. Yet new programs introduced in 2014 have included finance and accounting, marketing, and information technology, all of which look non-viable, and none of which link specifically to the land industries. In 2015 a further commerce program in indigenous business is to be introduced.  Mixed messages continue to be received, with the VC saying in recent weeks that Lincoln would no longer teach generic commerce, but senior management in the faculty then telling key colleagues that these words of the VC were ‘unhelpful’ and ‘unfortunate’. The faculty continues to market itself as generic commerce.

There were also five new BSc programs in 2014, with less than 35 new enrollees in total. The combined enrolments for the degrees of Environment and Society, Environmental Management and Planning, Sport and Recreation Management, and Tourism Management, are also apparently in decline. These are all areas where Lincoln competes with other institutions, and which need close scrutiny.

Joining University of Canterbury will bring its own set of issues. There will be synergies in areas like agricultural engineering and resource management law, where Lincoln has lost capability. However, the Lincoln philosophies are distinctive and could easily be lost. Also, Canterbury University is having its own problems. Therefore strong and empathetic leadership will be needed.

The over-riding issue is that agri-food opportunities for New Zealand are immense, and education is one of the fundamentals. Something therefore needs to be done to get resources to where they are needed.

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.
This entry was posted in Agribusiness, Education, The Fairfax SST Articles. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Lincoln and Canterbury: is a merger the solution?

  1. Ian James says:

    As a Massey Ag Sci graduate from the 1960’s, I may comment that the alternative to the joining the “fine University” down the road, is to merge with Massey. Such a marriage would, without doubt, create the single “finest” Agricultural University in NZ.

    Ian James, Okarito

    • Keith Woodford says:

      History says that when two organisations that do similar things try to join together, the cultural clash and the competitive fighting are major. These forced marriages are never happy affairs. In Australia, most of the forced institutional marriages have led to divorces. Also, if Lincoln and Massey joined together then the savings and synergies would not be major. For Lincoln, the synergies and overhead savings are much larger if we join with Canterbury. Lincoln and Massey have tried to collaborate on a number of fronts in recent years, but most of these attempts have ended in tears. Massey would probably like to swallow up Lincoln because it would give then a South Island beach head for non agricultural courses. If Lincoln staff were given a vote – which they won’t be – then I am confident that 90% would say Canterbury over Massey.

      • Paul says:

        Interesting comments re Massey ‘swallowing up’ and recent ‘collaboration’ between the two Keith. Recent on the ground actions shows it is Lincoln trying to do the ‘swallowing up’ – Telford. Lincoln appears to only know ‘collaboration’ where it is a clear win for themselves and they have exhausted the compete and conquer methods. How would you feel being Massey when Lincoln buys a farm on your doorstep for ‘training /education’ on one hand while receiving Govt funding for rebuild with the other.
        As an Lincoln Alumni I am rapt that Lincoln has received the required funding to replace infrastructure and crack on with the Lincoln Hub. Hopefully they can work with Massey, Canterbury and others in the industry to ensure a prosperous future. Unfortunately some actions of late look more like they are Lincoln only ‘our way or the highway’

      • Keith Woodford says:

        To the best of my knowledge Lincoln has not bought any North Island farms. My understanding (open to correction) is that Lincoln’s North Island involvements are through bequests and trusts and have not involved internal funding. There will be diverse views, even within the University, as to the capacity to manage these widespread activities. As for the rebuild funds, they will come with all sorts of strings attached as to how and where they can be spent.
        In regard to Telford, it was actually Telford who came to Lincoln seeking shelter from some unfavourable policy winds. At the time they were cash and asset rich, but the outlook given evolving Government policy was bleak. At the time, as recorded on this website, I did not think it was a good move. The cultural differences between universities focusing on Level 5 and above, and training institutes with their predominant focus on Levels 3 and 4 courses, are too great to bridge. Time will tell who was correct.
        In regard to Massey and Lincoln, I remain clear in my view that an amalgamation would not be productive. In contrast, an amalgamation with Canterbury could bring cost efficiencies and also some synergies. Nevertheless, Canterbury University is itself not a happy place at the moment. My plan is to watch from the sidelines.
        Keith W

  2. Ian James says:

    As you no doubt deduced, my comments were ‘ a shade cheeky’ so your response is entirely predictable and not new. As you state, there has long a competitive culture between the Ag Universities,even within my family as my son is a Lincoln graduate.

    In fact Ag subjects would not easily be divided between Massey and Lincoln. One of the great values of an Ag degree is the wide range of subjects taught. One can only hope that the value of a ‘generalist’ degree is not abandoned should a Canterbury/Lincoln merger eventuate.

    • Keith Woodford says:

      There is no longer a risk free way of getting out of the current mess at Lincoln. Whatever is now done there will be casualties. The time honoured approach at Lincoln has been to try and give students a broad education that allows them to define and solve some real life issues. But the forces of academia lead inexorably towards specialisation. The staff with applied problem solving skills are the ones who are now being squeezed out.

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