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Committee backs university merger – but Libs flag concerns

A parliamentary inquiry has found that merging the University of Adelaide with UniSA would likely advance the state’s economic and social interests, but Opposition MPs say the report “does not sufficiently acknowledge the risks inherent in merging two enormous institutions”.

Oct 17, 2023, updated Oct 17, 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 Joint Committee on the Establishment of Adelaide University published its final report this afternoon, issuing seven recommendations about the Malinauskas Government’s push to merge the University of Adelaide and UniSA.

More than 30 witnesses have given evidence to the committee since August, including the vice-chancellors of the University of Adelaide and UniSA, Peter Høj and David Lloyd, who have appeared twice to argue for the amalgamation.

The inquiry was established in July, a week after the two institutions announced they would progress with a merger.

The committee was chaired by independent MP Dan Cregan and consisted of four Labor and two Liberal MPs along with SA-Best MLC Connie Bonaros, One Nation MLC Sarah Game and Greens MLC Robert Simms.

The final report states: “The Committee considers that the economic and social interests of the State of South Australia would likely be advanced by the amalgamation of The University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia into the new Adelaide University.

“The Committee received evidence that competition between universities globally remains fierce. That competition is likely to increase over coming decades.

“The Committee received evidence suggesting that, if the Parliament of South Australia was reluctant to undertake higher education reform, the State’s University Sector is likely to become increasingly less competitive.”

The report also stressed the importance of risk management, saying the universities “must put appropriate measures in place to monitor, evaluate and sufficiently invest in the ongoing actioning of the risk management analysis”.

But the findings of the committee were not universally endorsed, with Opposition committee members John Gardner and Jing Lee issuing a minority report. Greens MLC Simms also issued a report with separate conclusions.

The Malinauskas Government needs support in the Upper House from either the Opposition or two members of the crossbench to pass legislation to create the new Adelaide University.

The Opposition is expected to announce how it will vote on the merger in two weeks.

In their minority report, Gardner and Lee wrote: “The proposal is not objectively good or bad. It is a subjective call, with opportunities and risks inherent in either approach.

“The potential benefits of the proposal certainly merit the Parliament’s serious consideration.

“But to dismiss the concerns and risks, such as those raised by a range of eminent individuals and interested stakeholders throughout this Committee inquiry, without taking further steps in mitigation, would be foolhardy and not in the state’s interests.”

The minority report later said: “The recommendation endorsed by the majority does not sufficiently acknowledge the risks inherent in merging two enormous institutions, with such different internal cultures.”

Early VC appointment, more help for Flinders Uni among recommendations

The committee’s final report recommends the merger universities consider “additional risk management measures” to progress amalgamation, including the “early appointment” of a new vice-chancellor.

Currently, the University of Adelaide and UniSA are proposing the incumbent vice-chancellors act as co-vice-chancellors when the new institution opens in January 2026 while a transition council undertakes a search for a new vice-chancellor.

The committee suggested the earlier appointment of a new vice-chancellor would “ensure a single-minded focus on the objectives of the merger”.

It also recommended resourcing a “robust and stand-alone risk management unit” to address “merger-specific risks and to advise on early adoption choices to better control or minimise known risks”.

The standalone risk management unit could consider issues like talent retention, managing the health, wellbeing and workload pressure on staff and “managing public sentiment towards the amalgamation process”.

The committee also recommended that consideration be given “to ensuring potential additional investments and support for Flinders University”.

It comes after Flinders University vice-chancellor Colin Stirling gave evidence to the inquiry in August that the Malinauskas Government’s pledge to establish $300 million in perpetual funds to support the new Adelaide University would be unfair to prospective Flinders students and undermine South Australia’s research effort.

The committee called for more parliamentary oversight, including annual reporting requirements for the $300 million in perpetual funds being set up to support the new university’s research and enrolment of low-income students.

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The Malinauskas Government has committed $444.5 million towards the merger through the two perpetual funds, $114.5 million in land sales and $30 million for measures to attract international students.

However, the universities will only have access to the proceeds the funds make each year, rather than the full balance.

Deputy Premier Susan Close, who has ministerial responsibility for higher education, said the government welcomed the committee’s report.

“Importantly, we welcome the committee’s finding that the creation of a new university will advance the economic and social interests of South Australia,” she said.

“This outcome is the core reason the State Government is pursuing the creation of the new university. The committee has also found the strategies and processes in place to assess and mitigate any risks are thorough.”

Premier Peter Malinauskas, speaking to reporters this afternoon before the report was tabled, said the government will consider the recommendations of the committee.

He again highlighted that the committee did not have a majority of Labor MPs.

“We will see what those recommendations are and we’ll consider them, and we are open-minded as we have been all the way through to make sure that this is the best possible policy for the state’s future,” the Premier said.

“We don’t rule anything out… what I rule in is the determination I have to deliver on our election commitment, but more importantly to deliver on a high-quality university that sets our state up for the long term.”

Greens MLC Simms, in his minority report, called for the full release of the business case underpinning the merger.

The universities have only released a summary of the business case. The Treasury Department and the State Government’s higher education unit both admitted during the committee hearings that they had not conducted independent risk assessments of the merger nor seen the full business case.

Both the Premier and Deputy Premier also said in the days after the merger was announced that they had not read the full business case.

“It is concerning that cabinet was willing to propose a substantial public investment in this proposal, without reading this or subjecting it to any independent analysis,” Simms wrote.

“Despite stating that a merger would likely deliver benefits to the state’s economy, neither Business SA nor the Productivity Commission have seen the business case.

“Treasury has not seen the business case or conducted any independent analysis of it. It is the view of the Greens that the business case should be subject to independent analysis before any decision on the proposal is made by the Parliament.”

The committee received a confidential briefing from senior university executives in September about how the institutions plan to manage risk.

UniSA vice-chancellor Lloyd said in August that the universities’ risk assessment for the merger could not be made public because it “contains a significant amount of information about how we are going to mitigate the risks and the intellectual property involved in that mitigation directly underpins our competitiveness in terms of the national landscape”.

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