Editorial: Lincoln University premature in dismissing merger talk

Lincoln University vice-chancellor Robin Pollard has dismissed a merger recommendation as "naive".
JOSEPH JOHNSON/FAIRFAX NZ

Lincoln University vice-chancellor Robin Pollard has dismissed a merger recommendation as "naive".

OPINION: Something needs to change at Lincoln University.

In fact, change is already happening at the beleaguered institution, but so beset is it by chronic financial problems that any sign of recovery is just that: a sign. Much more still needs to be done.

In the last week it has emerged that Lincoln recorded a $17 million surplus (reduced to $493,000 after "unusual items" were accounted for) in 2016 and that a report, jointly commissioned by the university and the Tertiary Education Commission, recommended it merge with another institution to survive. Report author EY rated merger the best of five options – "the lowest risk and highest reward for Lincoln".

Vice-chancellor Robin Pollard was having none of it. "Lincoln has a 150-year-old legacy and should not be written off so quickly," he said. "Any talk of a merger was "naive".

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He was half right. Lincoln should not be written off. Not so much because of its storied history, but because it has made genuine improvements in the last two years, as evidenced by its recent book-balancing. Since the earthquakes, the institution has suffered from falling student numbers and serious financial woes. It sold farmland, cut courses and jobs, overhauled its investment strategy and commissioned the EY report to survive. Many of these moves were deeply unpopular but they had to be done. The alternative was that Lincoln closed.

To fight through what was hopefully the worst of it only to dismiss a realistic long-term solution? That seems naive. Belt-tightening cannot continue ad infinitum. The EY report recommended exploring a possible merger even if a new investment strategy was adopted.

It gave other options, too, including doing nothing or continuing its planned restructure. Lincoln has already doubled down on its core agricultural function, scrapping general courses like science. It was trying to be "too many things to too many people," Pollard said. It can capitalise on that renewed focus by considering how things like science, environmentalism and economics are changing our primary industries. That could bolster student numbers, which have grown since 2014 but not by enough to offset the loss of 500 students if its embattled Telford division in South Otago is transferred to another tertiary provider, as is planned.

And even if a merger did happen, it need not mean Lincoln being subsumed into a larger institution, like the University of Canterbury. Combining back office functions such as IT, human resources and payroll with another organisation could improve efficiency while preserving Lincoln's sovereignty. It has been a stand-alone university only since 1990. Before that it spent nearly 30 years under Canterbury's umbrella and was either a school of agriculture or agricultural college for most of its life. Change is part of its legacy.

The next year should bear out Lincoln's true position. The EY report is nearly 12 months old and based on work the firm started in early 2016. The university registered its surplus after that. If it can consolidate that in 2017 and boost student numbers, its recovery may be for the long term. If not, there is no need to write off other, more unpalatable, options when its survival is at stake.

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"One of the underlying assumptions of the EY report . . . was that smaller universities can't be financially viable. I think we proved them wrong," Pollard said last week. He may be right. Just not yet.

 - Stuff

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