Editorial: Lincoln University forced to face tough choices

Lincoln University is considering all options, including a merger with a larger institution. Could a takeover by ...
IAIN MCGREGOR/FAIRFAX NZ

Lincoln University is considering all options, including a merger with a larger institution. Could a takeover by Canterbury University be the answer?

OPINION 

What is the end game for Lincoln University? The Press has reported that some drastic measures are being seriously considered by the cash-strapped university. Lincoln may sell some of its thousands of hectares of farmland, drop some courses and seek private investment following earlier, highly unpopular attempts to balance the books. 

Lincoln was restructured in 2013 and 2014 when more than 100 jobs were axed. Maybe the old adage that no business ever cut its way to growth proved true because, two years later, Lincoln still has to dig itself out of a $6 million financial hole. Like other tertiary institutions, Lincoln's student numbers were hit hard by the Canterbury earthquakes but it does not have the size or financial resilience to endure the shocks forever. 

Prof Robin Pollard, vice-chancellor of Lincoln University, is considering options for the future of the Canterbury ...

Prof Robin Pollard, vice-chancellor of Lincoln University, is considering options for the future of the Canterbury institution.

Measures much more drastic than selling assets or courting private enterprise are being considered. A report outlining possible futures was delivered to Lincoln last month and vice-chancellor Professor Robin Pollard has said options include closure or merger. Closure would be "disastrous", Pollard told The Press

But a merger? That has promise. The most natural partner is the University of Canterbury. Would it make sense to run Lincoln as a satellite campus of Canterbury? As in any merger, there are duplications to consider. A layer of management would be removed and other infrastructure costs would be saved. In 2014, there were approximately 2300 full-time equivalent students on the Lincoln campus. This would make it a smaller college than Canterbury's colleges of Arts, Business and Law, Engineering and Science were in 2015. 

A merger with Canterbury would make sense for historical as well as geographic reasons. Lincoln started as a school of agriculture and, from 1961 to 1990, it was a constituent college of the University of Canterbury, known as Lincoln College. It achieved its independent university status only 26 years ago, within a period of intense, growing competition between tertiary providers. An institution with "university" in its name was immediately more attractive to students shopping around in education's free market.

But in difficult times, consolidation makes more sense than competition. In 2012, Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce told Canterbury institutions to work together. It is a year since a merger was announced between two other Canterbury tertiary providers, Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology (CPIT) and Aoraki Polytechnic. The combined institution launched this year as Ara Institute of Canterbury. 

Perhaps the independent university model no longer suits Lincoln. Tertiary Education Union President Sandra Grey told RNZ in 2015 that Lincoln's staff were concerned that the Government's model for funding universities did not work for a small and specialised institution like Lincoln, which might not be viable in the long term. Grey made those comments after the Government's Tertiary Education Commission started monitoring Lincoln's financial performance, as it had concerns about low levels of student growth and the ambitious planning of the Lincoln Hub. 

That was just one of a long series of developments that will have made Lincoln staff insecure about their futures. Whether it is to be a merger, closure or simply a reduced version of business as usual, Pollard is right to say that a decision needs to be made quickly. 

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