University drives into the rough

KEITH WOODFORD
Last updated 05:00 15/06/2014

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OPINION: 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 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 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 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 overhead costs 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 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.

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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 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.

Keith Woodford is Professor of Farm Management and Agribusiness at Lincoln University. His archived writings can be found at http://keithwoodford.wordpress.com

- Sunday Star Times

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