Flinders Uni ‘rejected invitation’ to merge with Adelaide Uni/UniSA

UPDATED: Flinders University was invited to join merger discussions with the state’s two other major universities but it expressed “no interest”, the vice-chancellor of the University of Adelaide says.

Dec 08, 2022, updated Dec 08, 2022
Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

During an interview with InDaily this morning, the vice-chancellors of the Universities of Adelaide and South Australia confirmed they approached Flinders University to take part in the merger discussions, but their request was rejected.

The University of Adelaide’s vice-chancellor, Professor Peter Høj, said the decision not to take part was “a matter for their (Flinders University’s) council”.

“We have approached Flinders University and there was no interest in engaging with the University of Adelaide on that matter,” he said.

“If they are not interested in a merger, I think it’s better that we don’t engage with them on it.”

In response to questions from InDaily, a Flinders University spokesperson referred to an email sent by the university’s vice-chancellor Professor Colin Stirling to staff on Thursday afternoon.

In the email, Stirling confirmed that the university had “not been party to any merger discussions”.

“We are a strong and distinctive institution with an enviable reputation as an innovator,” he wrote.

“Moreover, our very positive trajectory in recent years should give us confidence in our future and in our capacity to continue to compete strongly, regardless of whether the proposed merger proceeds.

“Therefore, while the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia progress their merger discussions, Flinders University will continue to forge its own destiny and remain focused on implementing the strategy that has delivered significant success in recent years.”

It comes after the state government on Wednesday evening announced that it had signed a “statement of cooperation” with the Universities of Adelaide and South Australia to create “Adelaide University” – a proposed amalgamated institution slated to open in 2026.

The Malinauskas Government allocated $1 million and three full-time staff in its June budget to fund a “university merger commission” tasked with advising the government on the prospects of an amalgamation.

Would we have so shortly after COVID initiated the discussions with the vigour we are now? Possibly not

The commission, which the government insists will still go ahead despite Wednesday’s announcement, was a Labor election promise.

On Tuesday, InDaily asked the office of Deputy Premier Susan Close for comment about the proposed merger, and a timeframe for the commission.

“I’ve been told that the government is holding off announcing details for its commission as the Universities of South Australia and Adelaide are currently considering a merger,” InDaily wrote.

“Can the government confirm whether it has been advised of such consideration by the universities and, if not, can please advise the timeframes for its university merger commission?”

Close’s office did not directly answer our questions, with the minister’s media adviser replying: “The State Government has committed to exploring and facilitating discussions among SA’s universities regarding the future of higher education in the State.

“Since the election, the State Government has made clear its intentions and has been in ongoing dialogue with universities.”

Høj told InDaily this morning that Labor’s election promise prompted the universities to enter into merger discussions.

However, he suggested that the universities would have preferred to wait longer after the COVID-19 pandemic to start serious conversations.

“It would be disingenuous for me to say that the discussions were uninfluenced by the strong government election policy that they put out as a platform,” he said.

“Knowing that the Malinauskas then Opposition had… a very strong policy document, that if they were elected it would be a first-term priority, we knew that we had to engage with that.

“It’s very well known that in 2011 I advocated for a merger, so there is no doubt that we would always have discussed it.

“Would we have so shortly after COVID initiated the discussions with the vigour we are now? Possibly not, but the Malinauskas Government decision catalysed those conversations earlier than they otherwise would have.”

This isn’t the first time the universities have discussed amalgamating.

In 2018, both universities commissioned an interim report on the merits of a merger by Nous Consulting group, but the idea was killed off by UniSA after four months of deliberation.

The people have elected a government with a mandate to do this

At the time, the then University of Adelaide vice-chancellor Peter Rathjen was in favour of the merger going ahead, but UniSA vice-chancellor Professor David Lloyd said that after weighing up the costs and benefits, there was “not a compelling case to support a merger of the two universities”.

Asked what had changed since 2018, Lloyd said both universities now had a “very clear vision about what can be achieved”.

“That clarity has been reached very early on in our conversation,” he told InDaily.

“There’s a different set of people involved – Peter and I have a great working relationship and a great respect for one another and we find it quite a pleasure to determine the path forward together.

“We have a policy framework, certainly a mandate from government, which has placed us front and centre both in terms of our perspectives, but also the people have elected a government with a mandate to do this.

“Plus, we’ve been through COVID and we realise the fragility of higher education is something that needs to be tackled head-on and what we want to build is a sustainable institution for the future of South Australia.”

Lloyd denied that UniSA was pressured to take part in the merger discussions, saying he would have participated even if Labor hadn’t made it an election issue.

“You have to look at the history of the two individuals that you’re talking to,” he said.

“Peter and I have known each other now for 10 years and we talk about lots of things and we were both very clear… after 2018 that we were both open to the idea of reconstituting the conversation.

“It was a natural progression when Peter returned to South Australia (in 2021) that we’d have that conversation.

“The fact that there was an impetus from government just added some direction to that, but honestly, we would have had that conversation whether it was a policy or not.”

Both universities have committed to undertake a feasibility study and business case to determine whether proceeding with a merger is in their best interests.

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This decision to go into this due diligence phase are decisions that are made by our councils – not by the vice-chancellors

Høj said the universities were likely to engage an external consultant to undertake the studies, with that work to start next year.

He said students and staff would be consulted, but the findings would remain commercial in confidence.

“We are wholly accountable to our councils, governed by our chancellors – that’s number one that you have to understand,” he said.

“This decision to go into this due diligence phase are decisions that are made by our councils – not by the vice-chancellors.

“This cannot happen unless the government put through legislation which will enable a merger.”

It’s unclear whether the government will have the support to pass that legislation through parliament, with both the Liberal Party and Greens raising concerns.

“The Liberal Party has always been happy to support a merger so long as the universities are willing participants,” the Opposition’s education spokesperson John Gardner told InDaily.

“What’s new today is that the Premier has said that he is willing to put forward a substantial amount of taxpayers’ dollars to make it happen – something Labor never included in their election costings.

“South Australian taxpayers deserve to know how much the Premier’s negotiation is going to cost them, and what they’re going to get for their money. We need to see the full cost-benefit analysis as soon as possible.”

Lloyd said that the government was yet to commit any money towards a merger.

He said the feasibility study and business case would determine how much taxpayer money was needed to amalgamate the universities.

“Certainly, the institutions are agreeing that we would be major contributors to the resourcing and the transformation should it indeed occur, but it is a matter now for the government to work with us to make sure that they’re comfortable as well that the state’s going to benefit on the way through,” he said.

Gardner said he was also concerned about potential staff redundancies if a merger goes ahead.

In a press release last night, the government said there would be “no net job losses as a consequence of creating he combined university”.

The vice-chancellors refused to say whether all staff who wish to keep working beyond 2026 could do so, instead hinting that a “reshaping” of the organisations would take place.

“Will there be more jobs? Yes, we believe so. Will there be some reshaping that will take place as a consequence of merging two universities? Yes, there will,” Høj said.

Lloyd added: “The quantum of people employed in the organisation will be the same that it is now and we will grow – that is our projection.”

A survey of about 300 National Tertiary Education Union SA members, conducted in May, found 52 per cent did not support the consideration of a university merger, with the remaining 48 per cent either supporting or partly supporting it.

The union estimates between 10,000 to 20,000 people currently work across the state’s university sector.

But Lloyd said during the previous merger talks in 2018, staff were “absolutely behind the concept”.

“I think that right now what we’ve seen in putting out what is a very differentiated vision for a new institution, staff are excited,” he said.

On the question of how the universities settled on the name “Adelaide University” – an appellation last used formally by the University of Adelaide during Mary O’Kane’s tenure as vice-chancellor – Lloyd said it was a decision of the universities’ councils.

He said the name was a “trade-off of international recognition for the new institution”.

“In terms of our consideration as an institution, we’ve been around for 33 years,” he said.

“We’ve been the College of Advanced Education, we’ve been the Institute of Technology, we’ve been the College of Art, we’ve been the School of Mines and Industries, so there’s a long tradition if you like in UniSA of having different names.

“It’s not really what it’s called, it’s what it does and what we’re trying to do is make sure that what it does has massive benefits for the future of South Australia.”

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