Upper House poised to challenge uni merger

Ahead of an expected weekend announcement on a plan to merge the universities of Adelaide and South Australia, key Upper House crossbenchers say they’re currently opposed while the Liberal Party says it won’t give the Malinauskas Government a “blank cheque” on passing legislation needed for amalgamation.

Jun 28, 2023, updated Jun 28, 2023
The Upper House could prove a roadblock for the proposed merger of UniSA and the University of Adelaide. Right photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Upper House could prove a roadblock for the proposed merger of UniSA and the University of Adelaide. Right photo: Wikimedia Commons

The governing councils of the University of Adelaide and University of South Australia are set to vote this week on whether to pursue a controversial merger of their respective institutions, with a final decision expected to be announced on the weekend.

The Malinauskas Government made an election promise to pursue the merger and the Premier has vowed to “make” it happen regardless of the universities’ decision.

The two universities will receive a yet-to-be-specified amount of state government funding if they approve an amalgamation. If they refuse, they will likely face a re-established state government commission of inquiry investigating how to pursue a merger.

But the government will still need to pass legislation through parliament to establish any new public university.

The University of Adelaide and UniSA are currently governed by separate acts of parliament that outline their powers, functions and governance structure.

“If the universities decide to create a new university, the Malinauskas Government is committed to preparing legislation for that institution and will consult widely as part of this process,” Deputy Premier Susan Close said on Tuesday.

The government can easily pass the legislation in the Lower House where it has a clear majority of MPs; but the picture is less clear in the Upper House where it will need support from either the Opposition or the crossbench.

Opposition education spokesperson John Gardner told InDaily the Liberal Party was open to legislation if it was the desire of the universities to merge but “it’s impossible to determine a position when there’s been absolutely no detail provided”.

He also said the universities should “have nothing to fear from a (government) commission” if they don’t support a merger.

“The university legislation is legislation of the parliament. The only body that can force the universities to merge is the parliament,” Gardner said.

“And for the government to presume that the parliament will accede to a forced merger against the universities’ will is extremely strange – it’s an unlikely outcome.

“The Liberal Party has said that if universities were desiring this outcome and we weren’t talking about massive amounts of government money without any evidence of benefit for taxpayers, then we’d be open to legislation.

“But we’re not going to sign up to it sight unseen and the Greens and SA-Best and One Nation as far as I know wouldn’t be particularly likely to do so either.”

If the Opposition votes against the legislation, the government will need support from either SA-Best or the Greens.

But that appears unlikely at this stage with the Greens among the most vocal opponents of the merger and SA-Best already flagging significant concerns.

“SA-BEST is yet to see any modelling, have not had an opportunity to meet or be briefed by the vice chancellors of either university, nor spoken to other stakeholders who will be impacted by the proposed merger,” SA-Best MLC Frank Pangallo told InDaily

“We are also yet to see the legislation the state government has said is required to govern the new institution, nor has the government revealed how much taxpayers will need to fork out for the merger to proceed.

“We are also concerned when the Premier makes a bold statement that he will push it through regardless without even consulting all the concerned parties and MPs.

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“Until we see that information, and undertake our own stakeholder engagement, we are opposed to it.”

The government’s university legislation could be a chance for the crossbench and the Opposition to push for reforms to the governance structure of the new university.

Greens MLC Robert Simms earlier this year introduced a Bill which would require all three of South Australia’s public universities to hold their council meetings in public and cap vice-chancellor salaries in line with the remuneration of the South Australian Premier

The reforms – pitched by Simms as an “alternative” to the merger – would also have required greater representation of students, graduates and culturally diverse people on the university councils.

The state government has not supported the reforms, arguing they would be “premature” before a decision on the merger.

Simms reiterated the Greens’ opposition to the amalgamation on Tuesday, citing concerns about the impact on “student experience and the potential for job losses”.

“This push seems to be part of a lurch towards further corporatisation of our university sector. Bigger isn’t always better,” he said.

“While we will obviously examine any legislation, the Greens have consistently campaigned against university mergers.

“I suspect any proposal would face a very bumpy ride in the Upper House.”

One Nation MLC Sarah Game is also against the merger. She said smaller universities tend to occupy the top rankings and “the case for merging the universities in SA has not been made.”

“As federal government has reduced funding, universities have turned into businesses and put staff under pressure to churn out overseas graduates,” Game said.

“Getting a degree from an Australian university is seen by too many as a path to permanent residency. What we need is more investment in Australians in university so we can innovate and improve productivity for the whole country.

“The idea of saving costs by merging universities is not a good idea. We need more investment in staff and a review of the courses offered.”

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