Murky details emerge behind proposed South Australian universities’ merger

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

Opposition to the proposed merger of the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia (UniSA) is growing, with a decision on the merger to be announced by the end of this week. SA Premier Peter Malinauskas has publicly declared his government will “make this happen”.

Late last week, the release of an article, A Commentary on the Proposed Merger of The University of Adelaide and University of South Australia, was published by the Australian Association of University Professors.

In it, the authors refer to previously undertaken mergers of tertiary institutions around the world and explain that the reasons behind such mergers often include rapid population growth and “huge unmet demand”.

“That is not the situation in South Australia, where the school leaver population has been largely flat and unmet demand is mostly already soaked up,” the article says.

- Advertisement -

According to the authors, South Australian universities have developed programs and cultures that emphasise different skillsets and outcomes. For UniSA, that focus is on vocation-driven degrees, while the University of Adelaide offers more generic degrees “that might lead to entrepreneurial or research careers”.

Could a merger send SA students to interstate universities?

With many education sector experts believing the merging of these two individual educational offerings would disrupt and destabilise these missions, the fear outlined in the article is that the end result may be unappealing to South Australia’s top students, who many then pursue their own tertiary degree at an interstate university.

Merger opponents feel silenced in a “toxic” environment

At the time of writing this article, a petition published to promote the anti-merger cause had more than 1250 signatures.

When EducationDaily invited people to go public with commentary about their own reasons for signing the petition, sensitivities about the merger became apparent.

- Advertisement -

One current Professor at one of the universities declined, citing concerns that the toxic environment now swirling around the daily lives of staff who are opposed to the merger has made many fearful of putting their head publicly above the parapet, in case there are future employment-related consequences.

One passionate signatory who is unafraid to state his own opinion with EducationDaily is Professor Geoff Hanmer, from the University of Adelaide. When it comes to the proposed merger, he says, there is a better alternative.

“I think the Premier wants to make higher education in South Australia better, which is great. Unfortunately he’s been badly advised about the way to do it by a consultancy firm. A merger will be very expensive, costing at least $250M, and it will not achieve the hoped for objectives,” Professor Hanmer told EducationDaily. “In particular, bigger universities are less attractive to students than smaller ones, so the dream of attracting interstate (or more international students) is illusory.”

Professor Hanmer describes both the University of Adelaide and UniSA as “already right-sized universities, comparable in student numbers with top universities in the world”.

“The best solution is to fund them adequately to pursue their strengths; in the case of UniSA, vocational education and for UoA, research,” says Professor Hanmer. “They are financially stable and amongst the best performers of their type in Australia; UoA’s research productivity is amongst the very best.”

- Advertisement -

The value of quality education goes beyond the classroom

With education being one of South Australia’s largest export – bringing in more than one billion dollars of income to the state – Professor Hanmer says both universities have a proud history of delivering industry engagement-centric research that has supported many of SA’s other biggest exports, including wine, grain and minerals.

“Don’t forget that UniSA started out as the SA School of Mines; you can’t get more industry engaged than that,” says Professor Hanmer.

And, he says, those in favour of a proposed merger “should not forget that Nobel Laureate Howard Florey, who developed the method to manufacture the first life saving antibiotic Penicillin, was a graduate of the University of Adelaide, as was Nobel Laureate Lawrence Bragg”.

Plus, he adds, “wine lovers around the world have benefitted from the pioneering research into oenology carried out by the University of Adelaide and many low rainfall countries have benefitted from pioneering South Australian research into dry land farming”.

While his enthusiasm for the significant marks the small but important universities have undeniably each left on communities both locally and globally, the other issue to consider, says Professor Hanmer, is that not all huge universities are good universities.

- Advertisement -

While he welcomes strategies to improve the delivery of quality, world-class tertiary education, Professor Hanmer is adamant that merging the two iconic South Australian institutions is not the best solution.

“Making SA universities better is simple; use the money and effort that would otherwise be spent on an ineffective merger to fund the universities better,” he says.

With only days until the decision on the merger is announced, Professor Hanmer calls on “members of the ALP, inside or outside the government, and the independent members of the Legislative Council to tell the Premier that this money can be better spent”.

Share This Article
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]