University mergers are rare, and when they occur it is often due to external pressures.
These pressures were prominent, for instance, when the UK’s Institute of Education merged with University College London in 2014. The government’s changes to its support for teacher education made an institute specialising in education vulnerable.
Although the proposed merger in Australia between the universities of Adelaide and South Australia has no such obvious proximate cause, the fact that discussions between them have advanced so far reflects an unusual alignment of self-interests.
South Australian ministers, business leaders and governing boards have tried for decades to merge the state’s public universities, in various configurations. While the Commonwealth assumed responsibility for university financing from 1974, public universities remain importantly responsible to the states. They are established under state legislation, remain accountable to state parliaments and have several members of their governing bodies appointed by state governments.
The case for merging is no stronger or weaker than the first proposal for major institutional reconfigurations among Adelaide, Flinders University and the antecedents of the University of South Australia in 1989. But one prominent thought in the minds of its advocates is no doubt that all these restructure attempts will eventually lead to something, so better to make sure it is something of their own choosing.
Those previous restructure proposals were prompted by the state of South Australia’s indifferent prospects for economic growth – which have long depended on heavily subsidised manufacturing – and on predictions of tepid population growth. The Australian Bureau of Statistics projects that the state’s population of 17- to 29-year-olds will fall until 2026, and will be flat from 2045 to 2051. By 2061 it will be 16.9 per cent higher than 2012 – but that compares with a figure of 34.6 per cent for Australia as a whole.
Since South Australian universities have no realistic prospect of seeing significant growth in enrolments, government funding or business support, mergers and acquisitions remain one of their few realistic opportunities for major growth.
The current merger push also reflects the 2007 decision of South Australia’s governing board to make the university more research intensive and, thus, to adopt the aspirations and values of its Group of Eight neighbour. Moreover, some prominent university league tables rank institutions mostly on the volume of their research, so a merger would increase the merged university’s rank markedly, as the discussion paper notes.
The two vice-chancellors have made the case for a merger astutely, laying a solid foundation for wide discussions among students, staff and the community. The prospect was cautiously welcomed by the former federal minister for education, Simon Birmingham, who is a South Australian. Both Australian academic unions have established conditions for cooperating with the merger that seem acceptable to the universities.
The amalgamated university would have 43,700 students. This is large by European standards. The ultimately withdrawn proposal in 2011 to merge three Dutch universities – the University of Leiden, Delft University of Technology and Erasmus University Rotterdam – was opposed strongly by their academics and students, partly on the grounds that the combined enrolment of 55,000 would have made the amalgamated university too unwieldy.
The University of Manchester, formed from the merger of the Victoria University of Manchester and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in 2004, is the biggest campus-based UK university, with 40,500 students. But the merged Adelaide giant would not be Australia’s largest: Monash University in Melbourne has 59,000 students. And, in Canada, the University of Toronto has more than 60,000.
Flinders’ vice-chancellor, Colin Stirling, has not publicly acknowledged that the merger of his regional competitors would be a game-changer for his own university too, but he has continued his preoccupation with internal restructures and process changes.
The institution could no longer market itself as one of three major universities in the city. One thought is that it could instead present itself as the smaller, more interactive alternative to the neighbouring behemoth. However, with 25,000 students of its own, that might be a hard story to plausibly tell.