More of the same not a solution for Lincoln

GRANT GUILFORD
Last updated 05:00 25/06/2014

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OPINION: Recently Professor Keith Woodford outlined the problems being faced by Lincoln University (University drives into the rough, Sunday Star-Times, June 15). He concludes the situation has reached crisis point but inaccurately attributes these circumstances to inadequate funding and the recent actions of the current management team.

As someone who spent over a decade leading veterinary and animal science at Massey University before taking up my current duties, I have witnessed, along with many others, Lincoln's sad, slow but inexorable decline.

For many years Lincoln has been unable to significantly grow its student roll and it is currently around one-fifth the size of Massey University. It has lost money in 11 of the past 17 years in spite of benefiting from a comparatively high average revenue per student (matched only by the two medical school universities).

Lincoln has one of the lowest international rankings of the New Zealand universities, making it difficult to recruit the international students upon which it has heavily relied.

It has also begun to fall well behind Massey University in the international rankings for agriculture. Massey is now ranked a very credible 19th in the world.

Lincoln's capacity to produce research of value to the agricultural sector has also eroded. In the latest national research assessment exercise, the university was able to muster only 37 full-time equivalent staff in agricultural research and over the past decade has published only 9 per cent, or thereabouts, of the country's agricultural research. Lincoln now publishes less in the agricultural field than Auckland University - an interesting new twist on those much maligned "Queen St farmers".

The principal reason for this state of affairs is a dogged commitment to a fundamentally flawed vision - that of a niche, specialist agricultural university.

For public universities to prosper, they require buoyant, growing, comprehensive undergraduate programmes.

This is impossible if your student recruitment is focused on a sector such as farming, which is undergoing a prolonged period of consolidation.

Unfortunately, this vision has been resolutely upheld by successive Lincoln councils and the devoted alumni who, remembering Lincoln as it was, have campaigned against the various structural solutions proposed over the years.

Successive governments have felt unable to act in the face of this fervent support. The upshot has been to deny the agricultural sector the benefits of a strong university based at Lincoln and to deprive staff of a secure future.

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A new vision is needed if we are to preserve what we can of the Lincoln legacy and to return the campus to a growth path sorely needed in the Canterbury region.

New Zealand should have a world-leading national agricultural university with a comprehensive coverage of disciplines relevant to the food, beverage and fibre value chains, agri-technology, biotechnology, veterinary science and environmental science.

The best way to achieve this is via a merger of a refocused Massey and Lincoln universities along with the formalisation of a close affiliation between the merged university and relevant crown research institutes such as AgResearch and Plant and Food Research. That affiliation need not be by merger, but it should be a close partnership based on industry-inspired governance, co-location, co-appointments, shared research programmes and shared postgraduate student education.

Achieving thiswill require strong leadership from multiple parties who must set aside their institutional loyalties in service of the nation. The good news is that people of vision with a strong "NZ Inc" ethos are now at the helm of the relevant organisations.

It is time for these leaders to act and for understandably proud alumni to support where the future lies.

- The Dominion Post

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