Will Adelaide’s new mega university commercialise HE?

Adelaide’s two universities ‘next door’ – the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia – are to amalgamate in what is believed to be the largest university merger in the world.

It is estimated that by 2032 the mega university would have over 70,000 students, pump AU$500 million (US$340.6 million) into the South Australian state economy and create some 1200 additional jobs, according to its promoters.

In a joint statement released on video via YouTube on 1 July Vice-Chancellors Peter Hoj from the University of Adelaide and David Lloyd from the University of South Australia said that it is a “momentous day” for South Australia and that the two universities have come together to create something that is “transformative for the future generation”.

However, not everyone is convinced of that. Public Universities Australia (PUA), an alliance of organisations and individuals concerned with the current state of Australia’s public universities, argues that mergers to reduce costs runs the high risk of prioritising efficiency (in management terms) over effectiveness of teaching.

They argue that universities are public funded institutions that need to go beyond training for particular jobs and should provide an education “enhancing individual’s critical capabilities and their contribution to civil society”.

Speaking on the public broadcasting service ABC Radio, Georgia Thomas, president of the University of Adelaide student representative council, said that students at the university are “concerned about what this would mean for our education”.

She added that over the past few years they have faced faculty mergers at the University of Adelaide alongside course cuts.

“So, it is understandable there are hesitancies when we see the word ‘merger’ is proposed. And a lot of the discourse in this merger has been focused on economic impact and research output. Rather than students experience and student satisfaction in learning and teaching,” she noted.’

However, the two Vice-chancellors Hoj and Lloyd, in their video statement, argue they are proceeding with the merger plans because both universities are doing well, and they could do greater things working together.

“We’re doing this because we realised we can create something better together (because) the actual activities of our institutions are so complementary that not to do this would be a mistake …. it tells people in South Australia we can do big things and we’re really excited about showing how that can be done,” they emphasised.

They said they could “leverage that wonderful research which exists in both of our institutions today” in areas such as energy transformations or futures and national security and defence, as well as active research in culture and society domains.

“We have an opportunity to be the underpinning power for a civil society, a future economy in Australia and on the global stage,” said Hoj and Lloyd, who were in an upbeat mood.

“(It) requires multiple disciplines to come together. We will have a size that can afford to sustain those disciplines. We are excited about what we can do.”

‘No staff redundancies’ expected

The mega university is expected to be operational by January 2026 and the VCs have given an undertaking in their joint statement that there will be no staff redundancies as a result of the merger, and job security will be guaranteed for at least 18 months after the new university becomes operational.

Universities are established by parliamentary bills passed by the South Australian state parliament, which has two chambers. Thus, a bill needs to go through both houses before the new university is established.

South Australian Premier Peter Malinauskas has championed the merger since his time in opposition. Recently he said in a media briefing “there are economies of scale to be achieved. It will unlock investment in R&D, it will attract an additional 13,000 students within eight years of its formation”.

‘More money for research’

Professor Lloyd told the Australian Financial Review that a merged university will be able to pump AU$35 million to AU$55 million in research funding because “of increased student enrolments and decreased duplication”.

The state government has promised to contribute AU$300 million for two perpetual funds enshrined in legislation from which return on investments will be ploughed back into R&D and to support enrolments of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

After a strategic plan for 2026-2030 is presented, the legislation to establish the new institution is expected to be passed by April 2024.

Reductions in diversity feared

PUA in a statement argued that the two universities perform well in serving different student demographics and needs and “to homogenise them would appear to reduce this diversity and run counter to Malinauskas’ own platform of supporting diverse student needs”.

With the government not having the numbers in the upper house, they will be dependent on the opposition Liberal Party or the Greens supporting the legislation to enact the new university.

South Australian Greens Senator Barbara Pocock, who is an alumnus of the University of Adelaide and has spent 27 years as an academic in both institutions, has expressed some concerns. She wants the new university’s strategic plan to show that the council includes representatives and strong voices from students, staff and the community.

The Greens are opposed to the merger at present because there has been no modelling presented to parliament on how public funds would be spent.

Earlier this year Green’s upper house member Robert Sims presented a bill that requires South Australia’s 3 public universities to hold council meetings in public and cap VCs salaries. It also wants greater representation in the council of students and culturally diverse people.

Sims told the local newspaper InDaily that he is opposed to the merger because he is concerned about the impact to the student experience and potential job losses.

’Bigger isn’t always better

“This push seems to be part of a lurch towards further corporatisation of our university sector. Bigger isn’t always better,” he argued.

The Liberals have told InDaily that they would support the legislation for merger only if the universities could show that massive injection of public funds for the project will benefit the taxpayer.

Meanwhile, Professor Hoj has told the newspaper, when asked, that if the parliament rejects the merger bill, “we’ll have to pull the pin”.

Premier Malinauskas has pre-empted the upper house blocking the bill by establishing a parliamentary committee of inquiry into the bill that has to report to parliament by 17 October.

When asked what will happen to the proposed mega university if the upper house rejects the bill, Malinauskas told reporters: “This is it”. However, Professor Hoj thinks that “it (rejection) is a remote possibility, but it is possible”.