Will WA universities merge?

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

With anger still simmering in some academic circles after South Australia’s two biggest universities signed a historic merger agreement earlier this year, Western Australia’s public universities are also facing serious challenges.

Plummeting research grants and student numbers have seen the state’s chief scientist claiming the state’s four public universities could benefit from merging.

But University of Western Australia’s academic board chairman said there was no evidence that amalgamating the universities could deliver meaningful and sustainable improvements.

The differing opinions were revealed during a panel discussion on the WA University Sector Review on Wednesday, 16 August.

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Competition between WA unis like the Hunger Games, says scientist

The review, announced by the state government nearly six months ago, will examine the structure of all four public WA universities, with an aim to strengthen and support the state’s tertiary education sector.

WA Chief Scientist Professor Peter Klinken made it clear that he did not speak on behalf of the government, but said he had seen “the academic equivalent of the Hunger Games” when it came to competition between universities.

“One of my frustrations, I have to admit, is that there is a ferocious … warfare between universities locally,” he said.

“Universities will poach staff or students from each other, and there is no net gain to the state.”

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Klinken believes a merger would stop this behaviour and enable universities to instead share resources, meaning WA would climb up global university rankings and be better equipped to attract more international students and increased revenue.

“The current model of four competing universities is not working … there has been 20 years of constant decline with no evidence of recovery,” he said.

“I’m throwing up a model of a single institution that would bring the public universities together. I would suggest that we develop different campuses as areas of specialisation and focus.”

UWA Academic Board Chairman Ray de Silva Rosa said merging the universities together would not result in the benefits Klinken put forward. He suggested universities could in reality only have two of three things – a high participation rate, attention to students and status via high rankings.

“To no one’s great surprise, the University of Melbourne was again ranked Australia’s best university, but it scored lowest out of 139 institutions in the annual student survey … just 63.1 per cent were positive about their overall experience,” he said. “In large organisations, management’s attention is stretched and enmeshed.”

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He said there was no evidence the four public universities had complementary attributes that would lead to a ranking rise.

UWA Deputy Vice Chancellor of Research, Professor Anna Nowak challenged the Hunger Games comment, and said it did a disservice to the work the universities achieved together.

The international market, she said, demanded choice – a reality that could be limited with just one university.

When announcing the review, Education Minister Tony Buti said there had been a downward trend in the recruitment of international students in recent years, the commercialisation of academic research and the share of grants.

“The world of work is changing rapidly. We need to keep pace and ensure WA’s university sector is meeting our state’s needs in terms of building a skilled workforce for the future,” he said.

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As the review continues, each WA university can put forward a submission on their hoped-for vision.

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]brandx.live