‘No contingency plan’ if uni merger blocked

The University of Adelaide has no fallback plan if legislation to merge with UniSA is rejected by state parliament, with vice-chancellor Peter Høj telling staff it would mean “we’ll have to pull the pin” on amalgamation.

Jul 11, 2023, updated Aug 06, 2023
University of Adelaide vice-chancellor Peter Høj. Left photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily. Image: Tom Aldahn/InDaily

University of Adelaide vice-chancellor Peter Høj. Left photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily. Image: Tom Aldahn/InDaily

Despite a legally binding merger agreement signed between the two universities and state government on July 2, establishing a new Adelaide University is still dependent on legislation passing parliament’s Upper House.

The Malinauskas Government, which doesn’t have a majority in the Upper House, wants to pass a bill by the end of the year so the newly-merged university can open in January 2026.

The legislation will be subject to a parliamentary committee inquiry scrutinising the merits of the merger along with the government’s promise of $444.5m in support.

University of Adelaide vice-chancellor Peter Høj was asked by a staff member at an online forum whether the university has any contingency plans if the Upper House blocks the legislation.

Høj replied: “The contingency plan would be – I don’t think this will happen but if the legislation can’t get through – we’ll have to pull the pin.”

“That will be disappointing in the extreme because of all the work the staff have put into this,” he said.

“Now, not everything would be lost. I think we would have a running start to re-modernise our own curriculum.

“That’s all I can say – we would have to develop those contingency plans. It’s a very good question; I just have to be honest with you to say they’re not developed at the moment.”

Høj said he considered the Upper House rejecting the legislation “a remote possibility, but it is a possibility”.

The Liberal Party has said they are “open-minded” to the proposed merger but have accused the Malinauskas Government of a “botched” consultation and inquiry process.

If the Opposition votes against the legislation, the government will most likely need the support of crossbenchers SA-Best in the Upper House.

SA-Best MLC Frank Pangallo told InDaily two weeks ago the party was currently opposed to a merger, although fellow SA-Best MLC Connie Bonaros voted with the government on Thursday to oppose changes to the merger inquiry’s terms of reference.

The Malinauskas Government last week pre-empted the Upper House from establishing the merger inquiry so it could have more control over the terms of reference.

The government set an October 17 – rather than November 28 – deadline for the committee to report back and asked it to consider “non-commercially confidential” modelling from the universities.

Premier Peter Malinauskas told parliament on Thursday he expected a final draft of the Adelaide University Act 2023 to be completed in roughly two weeks’ time.

He said the legislation will then be provided to the parliamentary inquiry, which is expected to begin hearings in August.

The Premier said it was important the committee completes its work in October and parliament makes a decision before the end of the year so graduating year 12 students have “certainty” about their future institution.

“Kids get their year 12 results, and very quickly, in the early weeks of January, or over Christmas more or less, they start making decisions about what universities they are going to apply for,” Malinauskas said.

“They are entitled to have a degree of confidence and certainty around what the plan is into the future regarding what the structure of the tertiary sector in our state will be.

“If the parliament forms a view that the new university should not be established, let that be the decision before Christmas.”

Malinauskas has previously suggested the government will not seek to re-introduce merger legislation if it’s rejected by the Upper House, telling reporters last week: “This is it.”

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Meanwhile, vice-chancellor Høj was asked at the staff forum last Tuesday how the merger would impact the ranking of the new institution.

The vision statement of the new Adelaide University sets out a goal to be recognised “among the world’s top 100 universities on an ongoing and sustainable basis”.

The University of Adelaide is currently ranked 88 in the world on the Times Higher Education Ranking and 89 on the QS World University Rankings.

The younger UniSA is ranked much lower at between 301 to 305 on the Times Higher and 326 on the QS.

Høj conceded the new university’s ranking would “temporarily slide back” from the University of Adelaide’s current position.

But he said the combined universities would be “very very close to being in the top 100” if they merged tomorrow, predicting the new institution would be ranked around 110 on the Times Higher and QS immediately after amalgamation.

“We have had all three major rankings agencies calculate what would it look if we merged today,” Høj said.

“When you add two rankings, it’s not a matter of taking ranking A and ranking B add them together and divide by two – that’s not how it works.

“And the very good news is that… should we have combined the two universities tomorrow, we are very very close to being in the top 100 already.

“So, if we prepare ourselves really well for 2026, if we are not already at least on one of the key rankings in the top 100, it will not take long for us to get there.

“And we will be on a trajectory, in my view, that will propel us much deeper into the top 100.”

A staff member pointed out to Høj that Melbourne’s RMIT University is the third largest university in Australia by student load but is ranked between 301 and 350 on the Times Higher ranking.

The staff member asked: “How do you ensure the new university doesn’t become another RMIT?”

Høj replied: “First of all, we know here at this university how to improve rankings.

“Of course, RMIT has improved in other rankings and are indeed growing very fast in the rankings.

“If you look at the QS Rankings in 2012, RMIT was at 245 and they’re now at 140.”

Høj also said RMIT got more Australian Research Council grants than the University of Adelaide last year.

“RMIT is on an upward trajectory and I can’t see it stopping,” he said.

“And that is exactly the reason why we in South Australia have to do something unless we’re content to have three good regional universities which are visible to us but no-one else.”

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