Adelaide and South Australia call off merger talks

Negotiations unable to reach agreement on ‘threshold issues and strategic risks’

October 23, 2018
Waste paper

Two Australian universities have abruptly called off talks about joining forces, ending what could have been the biggest university merger in world history.

The chancellors of the universities of Adelaide and South Australia announced on 23 October that the proposed union was off the table, after considering a confidential report from consultants the Nous Group.

Under plans outlined in August, the interim report was supposed to highlight “areas for further assessment”. These were to have been addressed in a final report, due in December, which would have helped the universities’ councils decide whether to continue the process.

However, the two councils decided to terminate the talks after meeting late on 22 October. In a joint statement, Adelaide chancellor Kevin Scarce and his South Australia counterpart Pauline Carr said issues and dangers that “required agreement from both sides” had been identified at the outset.

“Ultimately, our universities were unable to reach agreement on the threshold issues and strategic risks. Rather than engaging in further exploration of a potential merger, we feel it is in each university’s best interests to bring our discussions to a close at this time,” the pair said.

The two universities initiated formal merger talks in June, after decades of speculation that they might pool their resources. If the proposal had proceeded it could have delivered Australia’s fifth biggest university with around 60,000 students.

It is not clear which factors scuppered the deal, with both universities declining interview requests. An August discussion paper listed six risks including a possible slide down the rankings, a lack of government support – including unforeseen changes in policy – and the sheer difficulty of integrating leadership, staff and course offerings at the scale required.

The paper also warned that the costs of merging could outweigh the benefits, or that the benefits could take too long to materialise. It also outlined “challenges” including the loss of two distinctive universities and their traditions, and the difficulty of maintaining “personalised” experiences for students and staff alike.

Times Higher Education understands that, although the merger has been shelved indefinitely, the universities do not rule out a resumption of talks at some stage in the future.

The chancellors’ statement suggests the talks have not been fruitless, saying that they enabled the would-be partners to “seriously investigate a potential merger, advancing the concept much further than ever before”.

The negotiations have also “helped to affirm the importance of higher education” in the state of South Australia, the statement says.

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