Parliamentary inquiry must fill the information gap on SA’s uni merger

INSIGHTS & RESOURCES

Parliamentary inquiry must fill the information gap on SA’s uni merger

The Australian
by Tim Dodd
4 July 2023

Key Takeaways:

  1. The South Australian Legislative Council is likely to initiate a parliamentary inquiry into the merger of University of Adelaide and University of South Australia, crucial for the state’s higher education landscape.
  2. Opposition and crossbench MPs seek an inquiry due to insufficient public information justifying the merger decision, highlighting the need for transparency and informed decision-making.
  3. The inquiry should demand access to the comprehensive transition plan and detailed analysis behind the merger, rejecting claims of commercial sensitivity to ensure transparency.
  4. The inquiry must scrutinize the projected $500m economic boost and 1200 job creation, assess if efficiency gains will surpass existing universities, and investigate how teaching quality and research output will be maintained.
  5. The inquiry should question the merged university’s ability to cater to diverse student needs, evaluate its path to becoming research-intensive, and explore the role of Flinders University in the evolving landscape.

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Full Article:

It’s now virtually certain that the South Australian Legislative Council, the state’s upper house, will initiate a parliamentary inquiry into the planned merger of the state’s two largest universities.

The upper house, which the SA Labor government does not control, must pass legislation if the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia are to be dissolved and reappear as a new merged entity – Adelaide University.

Rightly, the Liberal opposition and key members of the crossbench of the upper house are calling for the inquiry before they vote on the merger, which was given the green light by the two universities last weekend.

You would not expect anything less before a decision is taken on something that is as economically and socially important to South Australia as the future of its higher education institutions.

As opposition and crossbench MPs have already pointed out, there is a paucity of public information to justify the decision of the two universities to merge.

Premier Peter Malinauskas, who is a key champion of the new mega university, and the two university governing councils have done their work on the merger and reached the decision away from the public gaze.

The first thing the inquiry should do is demand access to the full transition plan that the universities have developed, as well as the detailed work – whether done by outside consultants or within the universities – to arrive at the plan. It should not be fobbed off by cries of “commercial-in-confidence”. The information that is truly commercially sensitive in these documents will be very limited. But detailed information and public transparency are needed to make informed decisions about some key matters.

There are many issues to address. One is to test the claimed $500m economic boost and extra 1200 jobs that are forecast. We need to see the economic analysis.

A related issue is whether the merged university will gain economies of scale through more efficient operation. Interestingly, work by economist Keith Houghton (reported in The Australian earlier this year) shows that the University of Adelaide is already operating at the efficiency frontier. Together “the average level of cost efficiency of the three South Australian public universities outperforms the average cost efficiency observed in all other mainland states,” Houghton says.

In other words South Australian universities already operate efficiently. To achieve significant productivity gains from a merger the new institution will have to become more efficient than any other university in Australia currently is. This is not impossible but it’s a big ask. We need to know how it will be done.

Another question revolves around the plan for the new university to produce high-quality outcomes in both teaching and research. “The two are not mutually exclusive,” University of Adelaide vice-chancellor Peter Hoj says.

He points to his record at the University of Queensland (which he ran from 2012 to 2019). UQ was, and still is, a high-ranking research university and also scores highly in student satisfaction. We need to know more about how this will be done. Notably, other top research universities (Melbourne, Sydney and UNSW) currently don’t achieve this.

But the merger also prompts another question about how well the big new university will succeed at teaching. It has ambitious plans for a complete overhaul of the curriculum. How will this new curriculum cater to both high ATAR students and those with lower academic ability? The new university plans to extend participation to students who are currently underserved by higher education, so it must be able to offer a quality teaching experience to students who need a high level of assistance as well as those who are well prepared academically.

The new university is also being expected to rapidly increase its research output, both in traditional academic journals and in working directly with industry. Initially, when the two universities merge, the new institution will not be a research-intensive university, but must grow to be one. How will this be achieved?

The inquiry also should ask about the future role of the state’s third university, Flinders, It is not part of the merger but has a key role to play. What new resources will it get?

The pity is that the inquiry is getting under way only now. Labor came to power promising an independent commission to recommend on university mergers. But Malinauskas abandoned this and worked behind closed doors with the two universities to prepare the merger plan.

This is a decision that South Australia can’t afford to get wrong. The inquiry has a lot of work to do and might now be coloured by politics. But it’s the best chance of a good decision, so bring it on.

Tim Dodd is The Australian’s higher education editor. He has over 25 years experience as a journalist.

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