Call to Merge 3 Universities

August 22, 2014

A call by the leader of an Australian state for its three universities to consider a full or partial amalgamation comes just two years after the idea was rejected for being too expensive and for the likelihood that the costs would outweigh the benefits.

The need for “structural reform” and “radical ideas” in higher education by Jay Wetherill, the premier of South Australia, appear to contradict his stance in 2012 when he was understood to oppose a proposed merger between Adelaide University and the University of South Australia, two of the three universities in the region. The third is Flinders University.

While Wetherill’s most recent pitch for a merger has been largely rebuffed, a joint proposal from the vice chancellors of the three universities calling for the creation of a joint research commercialization company is expected to be sent to the premier next week.

An Adelaide University spokeswoman said all three vice chancellors support a more collaborative approach to research commercialization. But she said that merging two or three universities would create a behemoth. Over 80,000 students are enrolled in the three universities.

She also noted that Adelaide’s status and ranking on various university league tables would be seriously compromised by any merger. In this week’s Academic Ranking of World Universities, Adelaide was ranked at 184. Flinders was 378, while the University of South Australia did not make the top 500.

Michael Barber, head of Flinders University, said a merger at this time would not be of any benefit.

“A merger at this time will not reap a cost benefit and is highly problematic with the potential to distract us from being competitive,” he said in a statement.

David Lloyd, vice chancellor of the University of South Australia, appeared more open to the idea but said there needed to be clear reasons to engage in any real consideration of the idea.

“It is always worth considering how the university sector increases cooperation, by mergers or other partnerships, but we need to be clear about the expected benefits and have a clear outcome in mind. [But] we need to be careful to not assume that any merger will of itself automatically deliver improved outcomes for students, business or the community.”

Wetherill’s rationale for a merger appears to be that it would enhance research commercialization agendas. “There are some elements within universities that are not supportive of [the] commercialization agenda of some of the academics,” he told a Committee for Economic Development for Australia meeting.

At the time of the 2012 proposal, Robert Hill, then the chancellor of Adelaide University, said:

“Everybody, including government, sees some merit in rationalizing, but no one is confident enough that the benefits will outweigh the disadvantages.”.

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