Zero evidence that an Adelaide “super university” will improve outcomes

A proposal to merge UniSA and the University of Adelaide is based on flimsy evidence, writes Richard Blandy, who argues that experience across the world shows that size is not connected to greatness in higher education and research.

Aug 22, 2018, updated Aug 22, 2018
Photo: David Cheskin/PA Wire

Photo: David Cheskin/PA Wire

I graduated from the University of Adelaide in Honours Economics in 1961.

As a result of my being a graduate of the university, Chancellor Kevin Scarce kindly wrote to me on 19 June inviting my feedback on a proposal to merge Adelaide with UniSA.

I took the opportunity to reply:

“Dear Chancellor,

Thank you for your email.

I don’t like this merger. All three Universities in Adelaide are fine, world-class, institutions.

What are the benefits to students and the South Australian community from such a merger?

Competition is good (beyond a minimum size) to get costs down and benefits up.

This merger will lessen competition in the local higher education market. It will not improve the quality or relevance of teaching and research in Adelaide.

What will the merger achieve in quality and relevance that could not be achieved at present by each of the Universities?

Adelaide is being given some curry by UniSA at present.

Adelaide should raise its game, not sue for peace.

Kind regards,

Richard Blandy”

In August, I was sent an email by Peter Rathjen, Vice-Chancellor of the Univerity of Adelaide, inviting my feedback on an attached discussion paper about the proposed merger.

This is my feedback.

The discussion paper is profoundly unpersuasive about the merits of merging Adelaide with UniSA.

It is overwhelmingly tendentious, arguing over and over again that the merger “could” and “might” have positive effects. There is no evidence presented that it would have positive effects.

The executive summary says (p.1): “Internationally, several universities are considering or undertaking mergers, based on their recognition that greater scale and scope could [italics added] enable them to deliver better outcomes than they could achieve individually.” There are many thousand universities in the world. Some estimates say there are more than 20,000. Why are only “several” considering mergers?

Further on, the executive summary says “… a new university might [italics added] be capable of delivering better outcomes in education, research and societal impact than the individual institutions can accomplish alone or through collaboration.”

In my time in the Discipline of Economics at Flinders University, Flinders taught courses in Economics at Adelaide, and the Economics Department at Adelaide taught courses at Flinders. We shared the Honours course, jointly marking theses and determining overall grades. We were rated highly in external academic evaluations of what we were doing together.

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Later in my academic career, at UniSA in the early 2000s, I supervised a young M.Com. student from Mongolia (on a Mongolian Government scholarship). He did a combination of Master’s courses from Adelaide and UniSA, some specially developed for his interests. He has become a successful businessman and a significant business leader in Ulan Bator. His program was only possible because Adelaide and UniSA were separate, but cooperating, universities.

The discussion paper makes a lot of the need for a university to be large to achieve a high international ranking. Data in the paper shows that UniSA has 22,000 students and Adelaide has 21,000. Combining those numbers gives a university of 43,000 students. What does one make, then, of the fact that Harvard has about 22,000 students, Yale about 12,000, Oxford about 24,000, and Cambridge about 19,000? These world-class universities are about the same size as Adelaide and UniSA.

The paper also shows that RMIT University in Melbourne has more students than a future Adelaide and UniSA combined, but ranks below each of them in average international ranking (particularly Adelaide) and ranks below each of them in total research income.

ANU in Canberra is smaller than either Adelaide or UniSA in terms of student enrolments. But ANU has a research income of $300 million, greater than Adelaide and UniSA’s combined, and is ranked in the top 50 world universities. Adelaide is ranked about 175th, by comparison, and UniSA about 325th. Scale has nothing to do with why ANU outranks Adelaide and UniSA.

This nonsense could have come straight out of the spiel for the Multifunction Polis (MFP) in the 1980s and ’90s.

ANU has 16,908 EFTSL (the measure of student numbers used in the discussion paper). The idea that ANU suffers from diseconomies of scale is absurd. Adelaide and UniSA are both larger institutions. The assertion in the discussion paper that “a large, merged institution would have the potential to generate economies of scale which could [my italics] in turn generate funds for strategic investment” is based on no evidence whatsoever. Adelaide and UniSA are both well and truly on the flat part of their average cost curves, where increasing scale alone will not lower average unit costs further.

The good-sounding gains in “teaching and learning experiences and student outcomes”, “greater access for students of lower socio-economic background”, “research capacity and performance”, “faculty and discipline opportunities”, “larger national and international partnership opportunities”, “opportunities for staff”, “support services and facilities”, “a university city, with disciplinary, cultural and sporting precincts”, “South Australian economy, society and culture” and “engagement and impact” are mere assertions based on possibilities, not on demonstrated outcomes.

For example, it is said: “The scale of the new university could [italics added] stimulate cultural and economic activity surrounding all campuses. These areas could [italics added] benefit from a larger and more diverse student population, and the consequent business and community growth.” This statement confuses the size of the new institution with the total size of the activity going on. Combining the universities does not necessarily increase their combined activity from what it was before amalgamation.

Indeed, there is likely to be greater spin-off benefit from competition (as well as from cooperation) between all the universities in South Australia, as well as with other universities in Australia, and around the world for that matter. The reduction in competitive dynamism from a merger is likely to serve the South Australian public and students poorly as the pressure to improve performance diminishes.

The waffle in the discussion paper in favour of the proposed merger reaches a crescendo in the section titled “A potential vision for the new university”:

The new university will be distinct from the two predecessor universities with a new curriculum, having a critical mass of research capacity aligned to key economic sectors, being differentiated not only nationally but also internationally as a new research intensive outcomes-focused institution of scale. …

The university’s compelling course portfolio will bring together professions with related disciplines, to realise benefits from shared learning and resources. It will have diverse courses that equip all students for their futures as citizens, employees and entrepreneurs. …

The university will position Adelaide as the pre-eminent higher education city in Australia, attracting highly skilled people, investment and prosperity to South Australia.

This nonsense could have come straight out of the spiel for the Multifunction Polis (MFP) in the 1980s and ’90s.

It is obvious that there cannot be a simple, amalgamation-based, road to becoming pre-eminent as a higher education city. Otherwise every state and country in the world would be doing it.

It will take individual academic brilliance, hard and inspired team work, and supportive, flexible administration over a long period of time to achieve any such ambition.

The proposed amalgamation would, in fact, worsen the probability of Adelaide becoming a pre-eminent higher education city by reducing the spur of competition and the gains from collaboration – where such gains can be seen to exist by people with skin in the game.

Richard Blandy is an Emeritus Professor of Economics at Flinders University. Until the end of last year, he was also an Adjunct Professor of Economics at UniSA.

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