Red flags ahead of a university merger in South Australia offer insight for educators in other states.
THE proposed partnership of the University of South Australia (UniSA) and the University of Adelaide (UA) is already providing valuable lessons for the Western Australian government and higher education leaders in this state regarding seamless mergers.
In July, the governing bodies of the two SA institutions agreed to merge to form Adelaide University, with the SA government immediately agreeing to commit nearly $450 million in funding support for the tie-up.
The merger of the two universities remains conditional on the SA Parliament passing new legislation, which in turn has triggered a parliamentary committee inquiry into the merits of the tie-up, along with the case for SA government funding.
Among other things, the joint committee on the establishment of Adelaide University’s terms of reference focuses on the expected impact of the new university on “the SA economy and society, current and future staff and students of the two existing universities and the higher education sector in SA”.
To date, the inquiry has exposed what critics have described as flaws in the process serious enough to put the amalgamation at risk.
One criticism raised was the transparency of governing body voting.
While UA said no-one on its governing council voted against the merger (there was one abstention), UniSA refused to release details beyond describing the vote of its governing body as “overwhelmingly positive”.
Another transparency-related concern raised during the inquiry was the refusal by the two universities to release the merger’s full business case.
The two vice-chancellors had argued the document was commercially sensitive because of the competitive higher education landscape and therefore must remain confidential in nature.
In addition, UA and UniSA also refused to release details of the consultants who prepared the business case.
One UA professor and eminent researcher told the inquiry the fact the business case had not been independently assessed was “an extraordinary oversight” and “raised a big red flag”.
The professor also highlighted the fact that both universities were inexperienced when it came to mergers, therefore making any tie-up a “high-risk” exercise.
He told the inquiry “[O]ur management has zero experience with that”.
It became clear during the inquiry that neither SA premier Peter Malinauskas nor deputy premier Susan Close had seen the full business case before committing the $450 million taxpayer funding package.
And it was also revealed that, despite publicising its strong support in favour of the merger, the SA government had not completed its own risk assessment of the tie-up.
Perhaps even more alarming, the inquiry was told that proposed mergers of universities were unwise until the outcomes of the Federal Universities Accord review were announced at the end of this year.
Former UA vice-chancellor Warren Bebbington told the parliamentary inquiry it would be premature to rush into a merger without understanding the details of the proposal, which he said would be the most significant reform of the university system since the Dawkins mergers in the 1990s.
Professor Bebbington also told the inquiry the new university’s vision, in his view, was flawed because the statement was “not a picture of a bold, fresh new university; it’s a collection of generalisations and peppered with repeated references to size and equity matters”.
Even before the parliamentary inquiry there were lessons about staff engagement and consultation for higher education leaders in WA contemplating mergers of their institutions.
A survey of 1,100 staff of SA’s three universities – undertaken by the SA division of the National Tertiary Education Union – revealed that only 25 per cent of responses received endorsed the merger.
The concerns arising from this red flag so far remain largely unaddressed.
Merging universities anywhere in Australia is always going to present huge challenges.
But for those contemplating a merger of WA universities, the SA experience offers some important insights.
A smoother journey towards amalgamation requires a clear vision for the newly created entity, effective staff consultation and engagement, sound risk management and the right trade-off between commercial-in-confidence arrangements and the transparency required if taxpayer support is involved.
None of this should shock or surprise any of today’s university leaders.
• Professor Gary Martin is chief executive of the Australian Institute of Management WA