Smallest university seeks security in potential merger

After years of financial problems, New Zealand’s smallest university is seeking a merger or partnership with a much larger neighbour.

Lincoln University in the South Island has about 2,700 full-time equivalent students, making it about a quarter the size of the next largest of New Zealand’s eight universities.

The institution specialises in sciences related to land-based industries such as agriculture and forestry and has had recurring financial problems over the past 20 years.

The university’s vice-chancellor, James McWha, said Lincoln was now on a stable footing but an advisory group had recommended it seek a closer relationship with another institution.

McWha said the logical choice was the University of Canterbury because it was close to Lincoln in the city of Christchurch, but he stressed that a merger was not yet on the table.

"All we've done at this point is agreed to talk with Canterbury about whether there's some form of partnership that would allow us to get better outcomes. There's a number of innovative ways of doing this. We could have the two universities linked with a common governance model; there are various of ways in which you could do it and that's what we want to sit down and talk about," he said.

McWha said the aim of the talks was to find an arrangement that enhanced both universities.

The chancellor of Lincoln University, Steve Smith, said it had approached Canterbury to explore partnership options and warned that a simple merger might not be the best option.

Smith said whatever happened, Lincoln would retain its name, identity and location in the town of the same name.

The Minister of Education, Chris Hipkins, said he expected a formal proposal from the two universities by the end of the year.

Hipkins said it would need to significantly enhance Lincoln’s contribution to the land-based sectors of the New Zealand economy.

Lincoln was an agricultural college at the University of Canterbury from 1961 until 1990, when it became a university.

In recent years the university has developed closer relationships with the Crown Research Institutes, and advisory groups have recommended the university look for a partner institution.

Founded in 1878 as a School of Agriculture, Lincoln is reported to be the oldest agricultural teaching institution in the southern hemisphere. From 1961 to 1990, it was known as Lincoln College, a constituent college of the University of Canterbury, until achieving autonomy in 1990 as Lincoln University. It was ranked joint 317th in this year’s QS World University Rankings.