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Costly Amalgamations: The University Merger Mania

Never trust the musings of university management, with their uplifting visions of sunlit glory, their honey-laced promises of healthy workplaces, staff and students. Being several steps removed from the trench, the field, the library, they are the last to be asked about anything of any consequence in the fields of teaching and research. But that never stops these servitors of the bottom line from imposing, dictating and ruining things for others actually keen on the pedagogical craft and acquiring knowledge.

When such musings are paired with those of politicians, an unhealthy compact emerges. In South Australia, the government and two major universities have decided that a merger will go ahead. The land, in this regard, is a trodden one. Merger talks between South Australia’s universities have already failed twice – in 2012 and 2018.

For some reason or rather, the current Labor Premier Peter Malinauskas, when in opposition, resurrected the beast stillborn, proposing a University Merger Commission as part of his electoral platform. The policy said little about the value of teaching, focusing instead on one primary obsession: university rankings. Such a merger was needed to ensure that a South Australian university would cling to a top 100 placement in the rankings “in order to ensure the highest quality research is funded in this state to drive economic growth.”

Whatever the merits of university rankings – and they are to be taken as sleights of hand and conjurer’s tricks – such an assessment has been incorrect from the outset. In 2023, the University of Adelaide found itself at 88 in the Times Higher Education world university rankings.

To all this could also be added an important caveat. “Should the Independent Commission determine that a university merger is in the interests of the South Australian economy and the welfare of the people of the State, then a merger will be the first term priority for a Labor Government.”

On winning the state elections last year, Malinauskas immediately threw money at the merger project, allocating A$1 million and three full-time staff in the state budget to advise the government on the project’s feasibility. But the promise of a University Merger Commission was abandoned with almost contemptuous casualness. The Premier had already determined what was best for the state, and he would be etched in its history.

On December 7, 2022, the state government announced that a “statement of cooperation” with the University of Adelaide and UniSA had been signed. Both universities revealed that, in the event that a deal could be reached, the new behemoth would be called Adelaide University, and assume work in January 2026.

At the time, jaw dropping declarations were made by the vice-chancellors that “net job losses” would not arise. It was an astonishing thing to say, an opinion of either blind wishful thinking or bog-standard mendacity. True to form, it took a mere few months to abandon the promise regarding job security. In its place is a watered down, flimsy guarantee that no forced redundancies or retrenchments would be made until 18 months into the life of the new body.

Then came the students, who only ever exist as spreadsheet returns and subsidised allocations for the managerial classes. As South Australian Greens MP Robert Simms observed at the time, the historical legacy from such amalgamation drives is hardly glorious. “The experience of mergers from interstate and overseas demonstrates that they inevitably result in job losses and a reduction in the quality of the student experience.”

The Malinauskas government was also doing its bit of crystal ball gazing, stating that there was “a demand for skilled labour in South Australia, unlike any other time in our history, and that demand is likely to grow as our economy becomes necessarily more complex.” Such words are hard to divorce from the military-defence complex that this new institution is bound to be feeding, given Australia’s still futuristic role in being a nuclear-submarine power.

As for prediction-prone vice-chancellors themselves, they believe that research earnings amounting to A$100 million will be coming into the kitty by 2034, another futuristic stab in the dark. University of Adelaide vice-chancellor Peter Hoj is even confident that A$50 million in annual research funds on research will be released.

On July 1, over the course of a weekend (by wary of university officials who deliberate on a Saturday), the governing councils of both universities voted to approve the amalgamation. Their meek compliance had the full, open-wallet endorsement of Premier Malinauskas, who announced the next day that A$115 million would be paid to the institutions in exchange for taking over surplus land, with A$30 million granted for the purpose of attracting international students. A fund to make the managers salivate is also being created via a A$300 million perpetual investment fund. The universities, in being told that they will have to work within these margins, promise to match the amounts.

Concrete details, as they always do on such matters, remain inscrutably patchy. The bill on the merger, which will include IT considerations, course syllabi changes and staff redundancies, is the stuff of speculation and secrecy. $A450 million is one calculation doing the rounds.

Nor is there any genuine assessment about the benefits of such a behemoth. A petition against the amalgamation, which has so far garnered 1,386 signatures, outlines their common defects, from the “loss of institutional identity” inherent to the specific institutions to the matters of decreased competition and a loss of local control.

The National Tertiary Education Union, long defanged in its wars against the corporate marauders and management buccaneers, is at least willing to offer some words of concern. Its SA division secretary, Andrew Miller, fears that the amalgamation “could be catastrophic”, feeling that an open and independent inquiry, be it through an independent commission or parliament, is a necessary precondition. But as we have seen, Malinauskas cares little for such procedural or intellectual decencies.

The power dynamics behind the merger should also be noted. The negotiators involved will be handsomely rewarded for their obeisance. The vice-chancellor of UniSA, David Lloyd, is considered the favourite for assuming the reins of the new combine, with Hoj set to get the chancellor’s spot.

Any such merger will require the approval of the Upper House of South Australia’s parliament, which the government does not, mercifully, control. The Greens have stated they will oppose the merger. They certainly should. Those who stand the most to lose in this institutional swindle – the toiling staff and the students treated as the perennial digits in a dying system – have been arrogantly ignored.


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  1. New England Cocky

    We had a merger of the Armidale Teachers College / Armidale College of Advanced Education (ATC) with the University of New England back in the late 80s which had some interesting spin-offs.
    All academic staff were promoted up a grade of salary and all administrative staff were guaranteed a job at UNE, resulting in about 40 staff in the Human Resources section for many years when the total academic staff number was less than 1200.
    The perfectly good ATC building lay idle for too many years before UNE relinquished the state government lease on its predecessor.
    A reported about $6 MILLION was spent building an Education Faculty building (eye-sore) on the UNE campus, thus abandoning the wonderful & adequate ATC building, for the convenience of staff being able to attend lunch with their peers.
    .The wonderful Hinton Art Collection passed (in legal error) to Armidale Dumaresq Council that attempted to sell it off to the Art Gallery of NSW for whatever the AGNSW was prepared to pay just to balance the ADC unfinancial books for one year.
    Commenced by Howard Hinton in the 1930s and containing many fine examples of ”plein air” style around Sydney Harbour, and the about 1100 items were conservatively valued at about $50 MILLION. The Hinton Art Collection at Armidale is recognised as the definitive collection of Australian art between 1880 and 1948. The NOtional$ supporting Councillors lacked any artistic appreciation.
    And the perpetrators of this anti-education ”innovation” insured that they retained a cushy desk jockey job with easy access to all the perks of office, while more casual academic staff were employed on annual or shorter contracts to complete all the academic work.
    South Australia should be careful of what they wish for when amalgamating two fine academic research institutions.

  2. Bob Vink

    A senior lecturer at a Melbourne University who has never worked in Adelaide pontificating about the South Australian Universities merger. Wonders never cease.

  3. frances

    Brilliant and timely analysis, thank you. @Bob Vink: Have you anything to offer aside from an ad hominum? Surely such underlying economic motives and rationales for amalgamations are of national importance and critically salient for any enlightened conversation about the integrity and independence of tertiary institutions (and their stewardship), not to mention the increasingly autocratic managerial skew of government decision-making in this space. Take the the subs for example: apart from the fantasy of the projected skills boom and workforce it’s not like the nukey thing is some teeny local issue. Let’s hope the Greens block it.

    As the proud grand-niece of a scholarship boy who eventually became a specialist physician, university lecturer, and presided as Chancellor over a once-renowned university until his death fifty years ago, the trend looks pretty negative to me.

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