June 21, 2018
AUSTRALIAN FINANCIAL REVIEW

Adelaide University and the University of SA proposed merger just the beginning

Robert Bolton – Education Editor

More university mergers could be on the way after higher education experts said the proposed link up of the University of South Australia and Adelaide Uni was an idea whose time had come.

Education leader at consultants EY, Catherine Friday, said it was “absolutely right” that the sector had capacity to reconfigure itself. Some unis could merge, others could form networks or pair up where synergies were possible. The end result would be some unis which focused on teaching subjects such as liberal arts while others – potentially super-universities – could concentrate on research.

She said from an international perspective this would improve the standing of Australia in global rankings. While domestic students didn’t worry about rankings, they were “vitally important” to foreign students. 

Ms Friday said mergers would mean universities were collaborating instead of competing. “It lifts the numbers of highly cited academics, which is what international students look at.”

Recently the New York based TIAA Institute – the research arm of a giant teacher-retirement fund – said it expected the wave of mergers that have swept across healthcare, banking and electronics in the face of disruption would be repeated in the higher education sector. This was driven by changes in travel, technology and the need for greater efficiency. 

Ms Friday said from a corporate perspective savings were an important opportunity but if mergers were done effectively at the teaching level it would allow more choice for students.

Chief academic strategist with Research Coaching Australia, Emeritus Professor Keith Houghton, said the University of South Australia and Adelaide University both had “lean and hungry” back offices and both had made overall productivity gains of more than 30 per cent between 2011 and 2016, particularly in research efficiency.

He said the University of South Australia had made the larger improvements in efficiency and if Adelaide Uni could capture some of that in a single entity the two had the potential to be a “powerhouse”.

“Together they would have a greatly enhanced offering. A merged organisation of that scale would be significant player in the Australian market.”

He said if the merger went ahead there was a risk in the process around the culture and value set of the united organisation. Management would have to be sure what direction it wanted the uni to head in.

The South Australian unis have different backgrounds. University of South Australia is a 1990s product of merged colleges of advanced education and technology. Whereas Adelaide University is one of the oldest in the country and a member of the Group of Eight. Between them they have nearly 60,000 students.

There have been frequent proposals for Western Australia universities to merge – most recently in 2015 when it was speculated the Murdoch, Edith Cowan and Curtin Universities should join forces.

David Phillips, director at education consultancy PhillipsKPA, said mergers made sense in relatively small cities with large numbers of unis.

The motive was synergies, which could generate additional revenues. Brisbane was another possibility with University of Queensland, QUT and Griffith University. He doubted there was any advantage for already big unis, such as Melbourne or Sydney, to build scale through mergers in their states.

Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham said he expected universities to always be open to making decisions that are in the best interests of their students and the communities they serve, whether about merging or the courses they offer.

He said the government’s record meant universities were well resourced to make decisions on their futures.