Not telling: Unis won’t name business case consultants

The universities of Adelaide and South Australia have refused to name the consultants involved in the business case for an agreed merger, saying such information is “commercial and confidential”.

Jul 07, 2023, updated Aug 06, 2023
Merging the University of Adelaide and University of South Australia would immediately create one of Australia's largest universities by student numbers. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Merging the University of Adelaide and University of South Australia would immediately create one of Australia's largest universities by student numbers. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

The merger deal to open “Adelaide University” by January 2026 was announced last week, along with a state government promise of nearly $450 million.

But both universities said they would not publicly reveal the full business case which underpinned the merger deal, agreeing only to provide a summary down the track.

Premier Peter Malinauskas and Deputy Premier Susan Close this week admitted they had not seen or read the full business case before the government committed nearly half a billion dollars of taxpayer funding.

On Wednesday, InDaily asked both universities: “Did the University of Adelaide and/or UniSA engage any consultants/consultancy firms in compiling the business case and financial plan for the merger? If so, who were they and how much were they paid?”

Both universities replied with a joint statement.

“The approach to establishing a new university for South Australia has been complex and involved assessing legislative options, consumer and competition legislation, Commonwealth regulation, and higher education accreditation, in addition to the development of a business case and transition plan,” a spokesperson said.

“Both universities established project teams made up of internal seconded staff, and engaged legal and strategic independent advisors to verify the analysis and projections.”

InDaily then asked: “Who were the independent advisors? Will the universities name them and if not, why? And how much did the universities pay for this independent advice?”

An amended joint statement was sent in reply, saying the universities would not disclose further details about external advisors.

“Progressing the transition to Adelaide University is a significant undertaking and will involve the ongoing engagement of specialist firms, including local businesses and the local offices of national firms,” the spokesperson said.

“Any further detail on the engagement of advisors is commercial and confidential.”

The professional services sector – dominated by PwC, KPMG, Deloitte and EY – plays a major role in Australia’s higher education sector.

The University of Adelaide spent just under $23.9m on “consultants and specialist services” in 2022, according to its most recent annual report, while UniSA spent nearly $58.2m on “external services” in 2021.

National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) SA division secretary Andrew Miller said it was “essential to public confidence” in the merger that basic information such as which consultants were hired was disclosed.

“In the wake of the PwC scandal, the SA public has every right to know which agencies are being engaged, how much they are being paid, and how any potential conflict of interest will be managed now and into the future, so that the SA public and university community can have every confidence the process is undertaken with full transparency and integrity,” he said.

“Secrecy is anathema to good public policy development and implementation.”

Miller said the union asked Close at a meeting in June for both university councils to “fully disclose” the consultants used to develop the business case and feasibility assessment.

“It is essential for public confidence that the upcoming parliamentary inquiry fully interrogate which consultancy agencies the universities are using and how much they have and will be paid now and into the future,” he said.

But it appears that a parliamentary inquiry into the merger will have little power to compel the universities to disclose commercial information, with the Malinauskas Government on Thursday moving to seize control of the inquiry process.

Last week, the Opposition and the crossbench in the Upper House – where the government does not have a majority of MPs – vowed to establish a merger inquiry despite warnings from the Premier and the universities about delaying the process.

The government’s move in Parliament on Thursday to pre-empt the Upper House inquiry allowed it to define the terms of reference for the committee and set an October 17 – rather than November 28 – deadline for it to report back.

The terms of reference for the government-backed committee are to inquire into “the expected impact (including non-commercially confidential modelling generated by the existing universities) of the new university”.

Greens MLC Robert Simms, with the support of the Opposition, moved an amendment in the Upper House on Thursday to delete “non-commercially confidential” from the terms of reference.

The government voted down Simms’ amendment with the help of SA-Best and One Nation.

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After the amendment was lost, Simms said it was “astounding that the Premier and the Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science (Close) haven’t seen the business case for this proposal”.

“Sadly, it seems that the Joint Committee won’t get to see it either,” he said.

Opposition education spokesperson John Gardner also urged the universities to release as much internal information “as is humanly possible”.

“Obviously, the universities are going to have some information they would want to redact from the public release of any documentation, and that is understood, but we would ask the universities, as I have done in person, to consider releasing as much as is humanly possible,” Gardner told parliament.

“Because it is necessary for lawmakers who are seeking to change legislation to take into account every bit of information that will help inform whether it is in the best interests of our community as well as the institutions.”

Labor wants to pass the Adelaide University Act 2023 by the end of the year and plans to release the legislation publicly within weeks.

The Premier said criticism of the secretive merger process was a “red herring issue”.

“All people want to do is talk about the process,” Malinauskas told ABC Radio Adelaide.

“No one wants to talk about why this is good, no one wants to talk about what this will mean to thousands upon thousands of kids in our community.

“People point to this minutia of detail and say, ‘oh there we go, there’s a lack of transparency, let’s start to undermine the whole effort’.

“And I just think that does a great disservice to the political discourse and the policy merit of the matter.”

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

Malinauskas said the new committee will receive “everything it’s entitled to”.

“We don’t have a full-blown public inquiry to a whole range of matters that are subject to commercial in confidence,” he said.

“But everything, including as much information within feasibility studies, business cases – all of that will be furnished to the parliamentary inquiry subject to the commercial in confidence components, which I have asked the universities to keep to an absolute minimum.”

The joint parliamentary committee examining the university merger has 10 members consisting of four Labor MPs, two Liberals, independent MP Dan Cregan, SA-Best MLC Connie Bonaros, One Nation MLC Sarah Game and Greens MLC Tammy Franks.

Malinauskas highlighted that the committee does not have a Labor majority.

“The sincerity of the government’s position in respect of affording a genuine parliamentary inquiry is underpinned by the fact that we are not seeking to have a majority on the committee,” Malinauskas told parliament on Thursday.

“We simply as a government are seeking for a thorough examination to be done on an objective, evidentiary-based basis and also done in a timely way.”

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