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SA universities reach ‘historic’ agreement to merge

The leaders of two of South Australia’s public universities have agreed to take the next steps towards a merger, already settling on a name for the institution and a possible start date.

Dec 07, 2022, updated Dec 08, 2022
UniSA vice-chancellor David Lloyd with his University of Adelaide counterpart Peter Høj. Photo supplied.

UniSA vice-chancellor David Lloyd with his University of Adelaide counterpart Peter Høj. Photo supplied.

The University of South Australia and the University of Adelaide say they will proceed to a feasibility study and business case for a merger which, if it goes ahead, would create the biggest in the country for domestic students.

After months of discussions, the universities announced on Wednesday evening that, should a final decision be made to merge, the combined institution would be called Adelaide University and would be operational from January 2026.

In a statement released by the State Government, the universities said they had agreed there would be “no net job losses” as a result of the merger.

A transition council would be created with up to 14 members plus a chancellor, with each university nominating half the members. UniSA would nominate the chancellor and, in the first instance, the leadership would be shared between two co-Vice-Chancellors.

A successful merger would immediately make the new university the largest educator of Australian students in the country.

The State Government has offered an unspecified financial sweetener to the institutions to “maximise the transformational opportunities being pursued”.

Premier Peter Malinauskas promised to explore a merger as part of his election platform.

He said on Wednesday the agreement was “an historic moment for our state”.

“The creation of a university for the future would put South Australia at the forefront of education in Australia, with a truly globally-competitive tertiary education institution,” Malinauskas said.

“The combined university would make South Australia a magnet for domestic and international students and a global leader in research – unlocking incredible benefits for our state’s economy.”

Both institutions sent a message to staff before the announcement was revealed publicly.

UniSA chancellor Pauline Carr told staff that “while, at this time, no final decision has been made, this agreement represents the most advanced consideration of change in our State’s higher education sector since the creation of UniSA more than 30 years ago in 1991”.

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“The creation of a new University presents a unique opportunity to positively transform higher education in our State and nation for the benefit of future generations of students, as well as, securing our legacies to date and ensuring lasting impact on our wider society,” she said.

However, she stressed that the merger was not a “done deal”.

“Please let me be clear. No decision to amalgamate our universities has been made. We are now entering a feasibility phase of deep interrogation and will produce a detailed business case of what we believe is possible through the creation of a new university.  So while this is not a ‘done deal’ by any means, it is by far the most advanced our institutions have progressed in exploring this opportunity.”

University of Adelaide chancellor Catherine Branson sent staff a similar message, promising to consult extensively with staff, unions and the broader university community.

She said a merged institution “would possess the scale necessary to sustain a Top 100 university ranking in the long term and, in turn, attract and retain the best research, teaching and student talent”.

It’s not the first time the two universities have explored a merger.

The previous attempt, in 2018, fell over after UniSA pulled out of the discussions. However, key sticking points back then – the name of the institution and how to select its leadership – appear to have been resolved this time.

The current State Government’s promise to create a university merger commission has been put on ice until at least mid-2023.

InDaily asked higher education minister Susan Close a series of questions this week about the status of the commission, due to suggestions in the sector that Adelaide and UniSA were considering a merger.

Her office did not directly answer our questions about the status of the commission.

When we asked whether the government had “halted progress” on the commission, Close’s spokesperson said: “No.”

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