Taking the bold step to ‘a new university for the future’

Amid debate and a deadline this weekend for a decision on merging the universities of Adelaide and South Australia, Innovation Minister Susan Close argues that bigger will be better for students, research, the economy and the state.

Jun 29, 2023, updated Jun 29, 2023
Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

South Australia’s universities are central to the economic and social health of our state. They teach our young people, preparing the doctors, teachers, architects and scientists of the future. They bring international students to our shores and the cultural and economic connection to the world that comes with them. Their investment in research drives new industries and better jobs for South Australians.

There has long been discussion about whether SA needs a bigger university than any of the three excellent institutions we have. While the University of Adelaide, Flinders University and the University of South Australia have shared histories, they each bring a distinctive culture, and many have been unwilling to see “their” university join another one.

Yet the higher education settings of our nation make it all but essential that the question of whether this configuration is the best for SA’s future be asked.

Three facts to be considered.

One: South Australia needs to educate more local young people because we are behind most other states in education levels and it is holding our standard of living back. A university focused on teaching more domestic students from a broader range of experiences is essential if we are to catch up with the eastern states and give all our young people a chance at a university education if that is what they chose. A larger institution will have more capacity to assist students from diverse backgrounds.

Two: More international students could be studying here if we had a larger globally ranked university. This would bring many benefits for all South Australians, including thriving businesses in the city and the boon to tourism from their families, who dominate the numbers of tourists coming on direct flights to Adelaide and who stay longer and spend more than other tourists.

International students attend all our universities, and are a vital resource, with fees subsiding many activities, including research and investment infrastructure, increasing a university’s attractiveness to international and domestic students.

Three: Australia’s research funding model rewards scale, and we have three small universities when compared to the behemoths interstate.  Currently, none of South Australia’s universities alone do enough large-scale research to be recognised as world leading. While South Australia boasts pockets of world-class research capability, only around 5.8 per cent of Australia’s science and innovation workforce is based here – far less than the state’s share of employed persons which means gap of around 7,000 jobs (Turning Research into Economic Competitiveness for South Australia, South Australian Productivity Commission 2023).

University research not only strengthens the university itself, but is good for the economy too, with every dollar of research income delivering almost ten dollars to the private sector (The Economic Impact of Group of Eight Universities 2018, London Economics).

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These facts require us to ask the question about whether a new university, created from two existing institutions, would be of value to our state. There will be costs and many staff will be fearful of the impact of changes. Some alumni will want to know if their degree will be regarded in the same way. The process will take time, money and effort.

This was true when Flinders University was created in 1966, and the University of South Australia in 1991. No one now could regret the decision to establish them. The question is whether we are content with what we have, or can see that taking a bold step to create a new university is the right choice for our collective future.

I believe if we do not do this, we will regret a wasted opportunity in the decades to come. We have a chance at a large, high-equity and research-intensive university in SA. We should take it.

Susan Close is Deputy Premier and SA Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science

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