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Uni staff fears over merger impact on education and research

Only a quarter of South Australia’s university staff support a merger between the universities of Adelaide and South Australia in a new survey, amid warnings that “the entire process is at risk of failing” due to poor consultation.

Jun 16, 2023, updated Jun 16, 2023
Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) SA division today released the results of a survey of 1100 staff across the state’s three universities, gauging opinion on the Malinauskas Government’s push to merge the University of Adelaide and University of South Australia.

The survey, conducted in May with responses from union and non-union university staff, found only 25 per cent of respondents supported the merger.

It also found only 21 per cent were “confident the proposal will result in better education” and just 29 per cent were “confident the merger results in better research”.

There is no turning back once this decision is made. We must get it right. Our public universities must serve the public interest, not political or corporate interests.

Merger discussions between the universities of Adelaide and South Australia are ongoing after the two institutions announced in December an “historic” agreement to investigate an amalgamation through a business case and feasibility study.

The business case is due to be handed to the universities’ governing councils by the end of this month, according to University of Adelaide vice-chancellor Peter Høj.

In a foreword to the university’s 2022 annual report tabled in parliament this week, Høj said the final decision to merge “will be dependent on the outcomes of the feasibility study”.

That’s despite Premier Peter Malinauskas saying in April that regardless of the universities’ decision, the state government would “make” the merger happen.

But the government’s policy has been met with scepticism from university staff and students, with the universities’ two-month consultation on the merger revealing concerns about potential job losses, lower standards and reputation impacts.

The new survey from the NTEU shows 60 per cent of staff “do not believe they have sufficient information to make an informed decision about the pros and cons of a new university”.

It also found only 30 per cent of respondents are confident the new university will “serve the public interest”, and 95 per cent believe they have not been “appropriately consulted” by the state government.

NTEU SA division secretary Andrew Miller said he today sent letters to Malinauskas and Deputy Premier Susan Close, who holds the higher education ministerial portfolio, to warn that “the entire process is at risk of failing”.

He wrote that the situation required an “urgent response” as staff believe the merger process “is already failing to meet public expectations and government obligations”.

“Merging the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia represents one of the biggest and most profound changes to higher education we are ever likely to see in SA,” Miller said.

“There is no turning back once this decision is made. We must get it right. Our public universities must serve the public interest, not political or corporate interests.

“The process must be evidence-based. It needs to be managed with the strictest public oversight protections and stakeholder engagement mechanisms imaginable.

“Getting this wrong would be catastrophic for SA.”

The NTEU’s survey of 1100 staff represents around 13 per cent of the total number of full-time equivalent staff – 8250 – reported to be working across South Australia’s three universities. The union estimates more than 10,000 staff work in the state’s higher education sector.

Miller noted that the NTEU’s survey had 300 more responses than the two-month consultation run by the universities of Adelaide and South Australia, which received 800 responses and was deemed to not be a statistically representative overall view.

He also said 58 per cent of respondents were non-union members, differing from an earlier NTEU survey of 300 members last year revealing they were evenly split on the proposed merger.

The Malinauskas Government has flagged it will make an unspecified financial contribution towards the merger once the two universities reach a final agreement. No funding details were revealed in yesterday’s State Budget.

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If a merger agreement is agreed, it could be subject to a probe from the federal government’s competition watchdog, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), to examine whether it would lessen competition in South Australia.

An ACCC spokesperson told InDaily last month: “The ACCC is aware of ongoing discussions about the potential amalgamation of the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia and is monitoring developments for now, pending the decision on the proposal by the universities.”

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

In their initial December agreement, the two universities committed to “no net job losses” resulting from the merger.

They also said the new institution, if agreed to, would be named “Adelaide University” and operational by January 2026.

Malinauskas told reporters last week that the state government still expected the two universities to reach a final agreement “by the middle of this year”.

He said the government was willing to make a financial contribution because “we see this as being potentially the biggest microeconomic reform in the state for 50 years”.

“These are two massive institutions that have got their own histories and they have been working cooperatively with the state government throughout the course of this year thus far to be able to arrive at an outcome,” he said on June 8.

“We are going to continue to focus on that outcome just as much as anyone else.

“We said that we were aiming towards the middle of the year, we believe we’re on that track with that.”

“If final agreement is reached, at that point any contribution the state government is making to it, of course, we’ll be announcing it at that time in the event that we’re able to make it to that point.”

InDaily asked Deputy Premier Close whether the state government would do more consultation on the merger proposal and whether the business case would still be delivered by the end of June.

In a statement, she said: “The University of Adelaide and University of South Australia have signed a statement of cooperation with the State and Federal Government regarding the creation of a university for the future.

“All parties are working through the terms of the statement of cooperation in line with the agreed timeframes.

“Should the new university proceed, it would require legislation and consultation would be undertaken as part of that process.”

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