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University of Adelaide, UniSA agree to merger

In an announcement on Saturday night, the universities of Adelaide and South Australia have agreed to merge to form “Adelaide University” after the state government committed to nearly $450m in funding support for the controversial union.

Jul 01, 2023, updated Feb 15, 2024
Premier Peter Malinauskas shakes University of Adelaide chancellor Catherine Branson's hand during the Sunday press conference on the merger agreement announced Saturday night. UniSA chancellor Pauline Carr is to his left, with UniSA vice-chancellor David Lloyd behind, with Treasurer Stephen Mullighan, Deputy Premier Susan Close and University of Adelaide vice-chancellor Peter Høj. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Premier Peter Malinauskas shakes University of Adelaide chancellor Catherine Branson's hand during the Sunday press conference on the merger agreement announced Saturday night. UniSA chancellor Pauline Carr is to his left, with UniSA vice-chancellor David Lloyd behind, with Treasurer Stephen Mullighan, Deputy Premier Susan Close and University of Adelaide vice-chancellor Peter Høj. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

The chancellors of the University of Adelaide and University of South Australia emailed staff at around 8pm Saturday night to say that the respective university councils had agreed to pursue a merger and establish the new institution called Adelaide University in January 2026.

The oddly but deliberately timed out of hours email to staff – shortly before a story was published online by The Advertiser with Premier Peter Malinauskas hailing the benefits of a merger – comes after the universities spent more than six months developing feasibility assessments and a business case for amalgamation.

University of Adelaide Chancellor Catherine Branson expressed “regret” for telling staff about the decision on Saturday night.

“I very much regret that this advice, of necessity, reaches you outside of regular working hours and only shortly before it is to be announced publicly, as I expect tomorrow,” she wrote.

Premier Malinauskas, who has pushed the merger and was ready to set up a government-backed commission to pursue it if the universities did not “voluntarily” agree to the union, is holding a press conference on Sunday morning.

BREAKING NEWS:

Historic uni merger decided https://t.co/aj5lXyUbjw

— SA Labor (@alpsa) July 1, 2023

In a press release sent at 9.45 Saturday night, the Premier said the state government would contribute $444.5m to the merger.

The taxpayer contribution will come via two perpetual investment funds managed by Funds SA, $30m over three years for initiatives to attract international students, and $114.5m for government purchases of university land.

The state government will buy up UniSA’s Magill campus for $64.5m and occupation rights to a “surplus” part of its Mawson Lakes campus for $50m.

UniSA had previously planned to move out of its Magill campus, with the state government to develop a detailed masterplan for the site while leasing it back to UniSA at low rent.

The Mawson Lakes campus will continue to operate as a university campus.

The state government and universities say the new Adelaide University will add $500m to the state’s economy per year, educate more than 70,000 students and create an additional 1200 jobs.

They also say the new institution will be the largest educator of domestic students in the country.

State parliament will still need to pass legislation to establish the new university with this stage expected in the first quarter of 2024.

But key crossbenchers and the Opposition said last week they would need to see evidence of merger benefits before voting to support the legislation.

Federal parliament will also need to pass amendments to the Higher Education Support Act 2003 so the universities can be eligible for Commonwealth funding.

In their respective emails to staff, the two university chancellors committed to “no compulsory redundancies or retrenchment of staff” from now until 18 months after the new university opens.

Branson said the merger would enable the university to “achieve more for our staff, students and community than is feasible today”.

She also said the decision of the two university councils was subject to some “important conditions”.

“The most important of the conditions to which our decision is subject is the provision by the State Government of a significant package of financial support for both the merger process and the ongoing success of Adelaide University,” Branson wrote.

“We have before us an unprecedented opportunity to create a South Australian university with the scale to make transformational investments in areas like modernising curriculum and online capability, attracting leading academics and students and providing greater equity of access.

“We know there will be many questions and some mixed feelings about this outcome. Please be assured there will be opportunities in coming weeks to learn more about what this means.”

The two universities have scheduled 10 staff “town halls” in July to consult on the merger.

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UniSA chancellor Pauline Carr told staff that the merger will “enable us to advance our ambitions for higher education further and faster than we could ever achieve alone”.

“We know that this decision will generate some uncertainty, and I want to reassure you that we have a long-time horizon for co-creation and transition ahead of us, which will mean that we shall be progressing business as usual for several years to come,” she said.

“The duty of Council is to govern with the best interests of our university and its community.

“We have determined that a new Adelaide University will allow us to generate both the global visibility and investment required to excel sustainably over the long-term, including attaining ongoing recognition as one of the world’s top 100 universities.”

UniSA was ranked 326th In the most recent QS University rankings while the University of Adelaide was ranked 89th.

A $1m state government commission of inquiry to explore merging the two institutions – which would have been re-established had the universities not agreed to amalgamate – will not go ahead.

The bulk of the state government funding support for the merger comes via two perpetual funds to be managed by Funds SA and enshrined in legislation.

This includes a $200m “research fund” to support the new university’s research and $100m “student support fund” to support the enrolment of students in low socio-economic groups.

The two universities have published a “transition plan” for the new institution, although it is only a partial release of the full document.

The transition plan states that the merger is “one of the largest higher education amalgamations undertaken anywhere in the world”.

“In parallel with the large opportunities it will create for the future, the transition in the short term carries with it sizeable risks and effort, in core activities – cultural change, curriculum and research transformation, systems integration – and critically, in being able to manage such major changes at the whole of system level,” the plan states.

“The feasibility assessment evidenced throughout this Plan, indicates that the volume and complexity of work can be managed, and that risks have been identified and can, with effective planning, be mitigated successfully.

“At a minimum, Adelaide University can be operational on Day One and provide a staff and student experience at least on a par with that offered by the existing universities.”

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