Lincoln University faces a 10-to-20 year process to turn itself from an under-performing institution facing merger or closure into one of the world's top five agricultural universities, says a report released by a Transformation Board appointed to assess its future.

Located outside Christchurch and employing 598 full-time equivalent staff for 26,491 FTE students, Lincoln suffers from "small scale, has a poor sense of strategy, and has weak relationships with key stakeholders and entities who should or could be partners," despite its co-location with government research and science agencies, including AgResearch, with which it is constructing a purpose-built collaboration hub.

"The teaching offering and delivery is in need of an overhaul, along with the focus of research activities," concludes the report by the board led by senior public servant Maarten Wevers. "It has in place a number of respected research programmes, and some gifted teachers and renowned researchers. But too few.

"Our suggested vision is for Lincoln University to become one of the top five globally-ranked agricultural universities, and one of the top five New Zealand universities. This will be no easy task," says the transformation board, which recommends urgently upgrading the quality and processes by which it is governed.

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"The university's leadership and management will need to keep (its) performance on the correct side of the Tertiary Education Commission's monitoring framework as any slip in
operational performance could erode confidence in the turnaround and transformation strategy." The university had "a long way to go before (it) is in a robust financial position" despite returning a small surplus after several years of deficits so far this decade.

The recently appointed chancellor at Lincoln, Steve Smith, welcomed the report.

"There's nothing we disagree with," he told BusinessDesk. "It gives us a real opportunity to move forward by saying Lincoln should focus on those areas that it's been specialising in for 140 years but do it differently and do it better."

The council will consider how to respond to detailed recommendations in five main areas: redefining course offerings for "student-focused learning for undergraduates, postgraduates and mid-career professionals"; focusing the current unstrategic research programme "to deliver positive change ... in the land, food and ecosystems domain"; moving away away from being a standalone university to being "the academic heart of the Lincoln Hub and a valued partner to institutions with shared goals"; clarifying Lincoln's purpose "to create knowledge and opportunities around land, food and ecosystems"; and "resetting governance and executive capability".

It cites the Dutch agricultural and research centre at Wageningen, which is further supported by the Netherlands government's commitment to agri-food as one of nine "top sectors" where it directs government research funding for economic impact.

"Lincoln University should commit to being a leading example of a specialist university. Although this will build on the rich history of the university, it will also require fundamental change in its culture and ways of working, the way it engages with students and alumni, and how it interacts with industry, government, other universities and research institutes," the report says, recommending it only specialise in certain areas.

"It is no longer necessary for a university to design, build and deliver all of the courses it wishes to offer to students, as they can be sourced from other leading universities and integrated into Lincoln University programmes."

It also needed to "review how it is currently attracting endowments and other alternative funding to allow for the development of more innovative models", could earn more from licensing its intellectual property and should reform the "role of internships and work-based programmes as part of the overall university experience ... to build stronger connections between the university and industry, helping to produce real-world ready graduates in greater numbers."

The university had strengths in "doctoral studies, management /commerce and agriculture subjects, and in producing good employment outcomes for graduates" but was hampered by "outdated infrastructure (including accommodation), a siloed academic structure, inflexible programmes, lack of critical mass in many areas of endeavour, and poor technology infrastructure and services for both students and staff".