Adelaide merger ‘would have been a disaster’

Leadership tensions killed off South Australian proposal ‘but it would have failed anyway’, academic says

November 18, 2018
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The University of Adelaide dodged a bullet when a mooted merger with the neighbouring University of South Australia collapsed, an Australian academic has claimed.

A well-placed source confirmed a report that merger talks were abruptly called off over a leadership dispute. But the source, who declined to be named, said that the merger would not have worked anyway because the two institutions were not “kindred” universities.

The universities have refused to outline the factors that scuppered negotiations in October. The Australian Financial Review reported that talks had collapsed after the council of the older Adelaide refused to accept the bigger UniSA’s insistence that its vice-chancellor, David Lloyd, should head the merged institution, an account confirmed by Times Higher Education’s source.

The source said that in the most recent successful university merger of comparable scale, when the University of Manchester was formed in 2004, a fresh vice-chancellor, Alan Gilbert, had been recruited from overseas.

“He came with no background in either culture, so he could call it as he saw it,” the source said. “He didn’t have half the staff thinking that the vice-chancellor was a captive of the other half.”

But the Manchester merger had succeeded primarily because the two constituent institutions were “more akin as universities”, the source said. The alliance delivered the merged university a formidable collection of Nobel laureates and an immediate rankings boost.

The source said that the opposite would have happened in South Australia, with Adelaide’s research ranking “ruined”.

A merged entity would have attracted far lower scores for research intensity, jeopardising Adelaide’s place in Australia’s elite Group of Eight network, the source claimed. The source said that alumni were horrified by this prospect, with one cancelling plans to bequeath his wealth to Adelaide because “the university I intended to leave my money to won’t exist”.

The state’s small population posed another problem for the merger, because South Australia did not produce enough of the type of high-performing school graduates who predominate at Go8 universities.

Adelaide, with the equivalent of about 21,000 full-time students, was already “scooping up” most of these school-leavers. As Australia’s self-styled University of Enterprise, with large proportions of disadvantaged and mature-aged students, UniSA had a “very different” mission.

A merged institution might have rivalled the large Sydney and Melbourne Go8 institutions for size, the source said, but the student population would have been “nothing like them”.

The other main impediment to a successful merger was expense, with the cost of harmonising disparate information technology systems and industrial arrangements running into tens of millions of dollars.

The source said that neither federal nor state governments would have been willing to contribute much money, and that a proposal to merge universities in Perth had failed because the state government had baulked at the cost.

“There is an illusion that these mergers create efficiencies. Sometimes you get an initial experiment to mould everything together, but pretty soon it all devolves locally again. The only real economy of scale you can get is by massively increasing class sizes.”

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Reader's comments (2)

The last ERA exercise has UniSA far ahead of Adelaide and several of the Go8. Both are fine institutions and if anything the momentum is with SA.
Am I alone in thinking these reasons (VC, rankings) and ostensible reasons (‘harmonising’ IT systems) pathetic? The administration burden in higher education is like a algal bloom, one just begging for economies of scale. Too few resources flow to teaching. Mergers are one way, in the sad Australian context, of refocusing on students. One would hope that this was a South Australian consideration, though it would seem to have been trumped by status and top-dogism. Sigh. Reallocating resources to teaching is still the point, however. Reducing administrative growth is crucial.


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