OPINION: Lincoln University is likely to become a leaner, more focused institution under reforms initiated to help balance its budget. So far, the university is saying little in public about what it is planning but the changes could be significant.
Currently, Lincoln offers about 320 courses, many in subjects which reflect its genesis as an agricultural college, and others which lead to qualifications in vocational areas such as information technology and tourism management. The university says it is likely to get rid of between 50 and 100 of them, and there will be some job losses as a result.
The university says it is consolidating its offering around the "land-based industries". This means that its qualifications will in future come under four "portfolios" - agriculture, business and commerce, science, and environmental management.
Just which other courses are likely to be cut is a matter of speculation right now, as a consultation process gets under way, but a browse through the university's current prospectus reveals some that are not directly or necessarily related to its core qualifications.
It is possible to study law at Lincoln, but you cannot get a law degree there. That makes sense given that business and commerce is governed by the law. But it is also possible to study philosophy and psychology, even though neither is offered as a major subject. One might argue that psychology is related to business, particularly (in the Lincoln context) through marketing, and the philosophy courses are specifically aimed at scientists, but whether such contexts are essential to farmers, business people, computer specialists, scientists and environmentalists is worthy of debate.
More tellingly, it is possible to do a Bachelor of Social Sciences at Lincoln and an example of how one might be constructed, provided on the university website, shows no obvious focus and cheerfully admits it would suit candidates "without a fixed career path" or mature students. Again, there is nothing wrong with that, except that only 25km away is the financially-struggling University of Canterbury, which has a wide-ranging offering for students who have yet to decide finally on their future careers.
The value of putting non-core subjects on the prospectus is that universities are not vocational sausage-factories, newly-minting technically-skilled graduates to fit neatly into narrow or particular slots in the workforce. Part of the point of a university education is to broaden both minds and horizons, and to allow young adults to explore knowledge for knowledge's sake.
By Lincoln's own admission, however - although it is again not yet being specific - there are subjects on offer which attract relatively few students, so their worth has to be questioned.
One way that students might have the best of all worlds is simply to merge (or rather, to reunite) Lincoln and Canterbury. The Government hasn't ruled that out but the universities respond to the idea in carefully-worded sentences which indicate they would rather stay as they are. In the meantime, they have tried to meet the Government's challenge to co-operate more, and also with the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology, but it is believed they have found that the opportunities to save money that way are limited.
That means that Lincoln, faced with rising costs and a deficit - a situation made worse by the continuing effects of the earthquakes - is taking the initiative to cut and trim to help balance its books. Inevitably, there will be pain, but the consultation process seems genuine and wide-reaching, and a university spokeswoman has said she doubts a union's prediction of 180 job losses out of a workforce of 720.
Lincoln should be applauded for grasping the nettle. Its future lies in its reputation as a specialised university offering high-quality programmes based around New Zealand's important primary industries and associated science and commerce. In Lincoln's case, less can mean more.
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