Uni Adelaide and Uni SA VCs have delivered the premier what he wants – it’s over to him
The deal that’s done
The announcement that the two university leaderships have agreed on terms for a merger was just about a given. Premier Peter Malinauskas has long made it plain that if they did not come up with a plan of their own he would appoint a commission to do for it for them.
Appearing to prefer each other’s company to the premier’s, VCs Peter Høj (Uni Adelaide) and David Lloyd (Uni South Australia) and their teams have created a timetable through to a launch of the new Adelaide University in 2026.
Their agreement is supported by state government commitments to a $200m fund to support research, with $100m in capital to support low SES enrolments. And to quiet concerns of job losses there is a commitment to no retrenchments through to 18 months after the merger.
The big idea
There’s more than a touch of the Playfords in Mr Malinauskas’ plan. After WWII SA premier Thomas Playford saw manufacturing as the means to make the state prosperous. And now the present premier believes (really, really believes) that research outputs can do the same – and that combining resources will give the new university the mass to do more than the two now do separately.
Plus Mr Malinauskas wants many more international students to study in Adelaide (there were 36 000 international students in SA in March, compared to 236 000 in NSW). He thinks that a big research university with an international reputation to rival the east coast giants is the way to do it.
Implementation will not be all peace and pleasantries but the public politics of the merger now moves off campus, to another North Terrace address – state parliament, which will have to pass legislation enacting the merger.
The House of Assembly will be obedient – not for want of trying by the Liberals – they went hard on the merger in the week before the announcement but Mr Malinauskas’ majority makes him a Question Time colossus. However the numbers are against him in the Legislative Council. The government has nine members and the Liberals eight, followed by two Greens, two members of SA-Best and a Pauline Hanson’s One Nation representative.
An upper house inquiry will be where the action is: the Greens want one and the Liberals, will back one, if only to make life as difficult as possible for the government on a bill the premier has made his own. This will give opponents of the merger a chance to brief every Opposition and minor party MP who will listen.
And what they will hear is why Mr Malinauskas assumptions about growth are wrong: the major policy objection to the plan is that the merger will not generate a rankings lift – with the back-up argument that no ranking can measure a university’s strengths.
In January Nicholas Fisk and Daniel Owens (UNSW) made an alternative argument for rankings. They calculated the numbers to eight years out and concluded that Adelaide U could rise from six to 30 places on the QS, THE and ARWU rankings. On the UNSW Aggregate Ranking it could reach 75th in the world.
As to whether a rankings lift will attract international students, first up the new university will have to spend a lot of money explaining where it actually is to students who think Australia is only Sydney, Melbourne and maybe Brisbane.
There will also be arguments that the merger will make things worse: this occurred in the past when combining universities came up in South Australia. In 2016, now recently retired MP Sam Duluk argued that university mergers would damage reputations with international students. “Adelaide Uni has spent well over 140 years building its reputation as a centre of learning and excellence, and as a result of this hard work, is ranked in the top 1 per cent of universities in the world. … While university rankings are not perfect and do not measure everything, they do count for a lot in public perception. If we wish South Australia to become a hub of international students, we must do all we can to preserve, protect and promote our universities’ reputations around the world,” he said.
Then there is the argument that smaller is better than big for local students.
As lobby group Public Universities Australia argues, “merging two South Australian universities is likely to produce an extremely large institution in which academic standards are further eroded and students are less satisfied. Disadvantaged student groups are not likely to fare better.”
And the union will have plenty to say: the promise of no job losses until well after Adelaide U is up and running will not quell staff concerns as details emerge of merged structures and systems. A pre-announcement poll by the National Tertiary Education of staff at all three SA public universities also found just 20 per cent believed it would improve education quality and 29 per thought it would improve research. Deputy Premier Susan Close dismissed the survey in parliament suggesting it was unrepresentative and because university staff “have felt under siege,” because of “the war of the Morrison Government against universities.”
The big question for the Council will be whether the merger is worth the risk: as NTEU state secretary Andrew Miller puts it; “there is no turning back once this decision is made … Getting this wrong could be catastrophic for SA.”
This could take a while to argue out: which would not be good for a 2026 start. The new university needs its own Act – which the Legislative Council might take its time looking at. There are also needs to be Commonwealth legislation, to add Adelaide U to the list of public universities for funding. And regulator TEQSA will have to give it a tick.
How long this will take depends on when, and if, the Council passes the bill.
And that hangs on the persuasive powers of the Premier.