Uni professor warns of merger risk

A proposed merger of South Australia’s two biggest universities could cause a major exodus of top staff and a damaging slide down the rankings, a professor has told an inquiry into the move.

University of Adelaide professor Derek Abbott. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

University of Adelaide professor Derek Abbott. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

The Malinauskas government in July announced the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia would merge to form super-uni Adelaide University in a bid to attract more students, more funding and become one of Australia’s top-ranking institutions.

But Derek Abbott, a long-serving engineering professor at the University of Adelaide, told a parliamentary committee examining the merger that another year is needed to assess its risks.

“A substantial risk we face is a major exodus of these (top-performing research) staff, causing our ranking to plummet and creating reputational damage to the state and the university,” he said on Wednesday.

While he applauded the intent behind the merger and supported its aims, he said alternatives that could better achieve its outcomes had not been analysed.

Abbott said the merger would not address the underlying issues afflicting major universities across Australia, including growing corporatisation, overuse of consultants, poor governance, poor transparency, top heavy management, wage theft and casualisation of staff.

“A merger is a distraction and will worsen these problems. A merger will embed us more deeply with expensive consultants,” he said.

But Abbott’s views were not shared by UniSA Creative dean Craig Batty, who said the merger was an opportunity to rethink what a contemporary, comprehensive university for the future should look like.

“I think that’s a much more exciting way of doing things because we can really start from the ground up rather than just adding more to what exists or just tweaking things,” Batty said.

“It’s like blowing something out of the water to really change it, to become an international benchmark of how to do things really well.”

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Wednesday’s hearing was the committee’s last before it reconvenes for a final sitting later in September.

Earlier in the week, the SA Productivity Commission told the committee the merger would deliver benefits to the state’s economy and accelerate much-needed reforms.

“If it can be a catalyst for important change in the universities so they are more integrated with our economy and business, then we absolutely acknowledge the merit of doing so, and that is sound economic policy,” chair Adrian Tembel said on Tuesday.

He said the merger, if executed competently, could provide more funding for productive research and give SA the skills needed to deliver the AUKUS program.


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