Students express their concerns after Adelaide’s two leading universities announce merge negotiations

Image Source: The Advertiser

By Giorgina McKay and Biannca Challans  | @ggmckay11 

Students from Adelaide’s two leading universities have expressed their concerns over Tuesday afternoon’s surprise merger announcement.

The University of South Australia (UniSA) and the University of Adelaide will soon be in discussion about a possible new, joint university.

UniSA’s Vice Chancellor David Lloyd said in a student-directed email, “Earlier today our University and the University of Adelaide committed to a process to explore the creation of a new university through the merger of the University of South Australia and the University of Adelaide.”

“No decision has been made to merge the universities.”

“There will be a consultation process which will last around six months and will consider the merits or otherwise of a merger.”

Merging universities and amalgamating into one, new and improved university is not a new idea; Australia is late to the merging party that has taken over Europe over the past fifty years.

More than 100 universities have merged since the 1900’s—you can check out the interactive map of merges here.

Finland has seen its fair share of merges in that time, and a study by Ursin, Aittola, Henderson and Välimaa weighs up the good and bad in university mergers.

Both South Australian universities have promised students all current academic programs and student services will not be impacted by this announcement, and both institutions will continue to operate as normal during this period.

In a staff-directed email, UniSA also promised that its culture will remain regardless of the merge, and that if it becomes obvious early on the merge won’t work, the plan will not go ahead.

But despite the universities’ assurance, students are still not convinced about the proposal.

Third-year UniSA student Ryan Colsey said it’s the transition period that’s most concerning.

“I guess my general concern is that although I’m sure the university at the end might look okay, it’s about how well the transition would go if it gets approved,” he said.

“When you’re merging two institutions of that size, there will be some teething problems in the first few years, so I guess my concern is what the impact that will have on staff and students in the initial stages.”

Adelaide and UniSA can learn from the mistakes and strengths of past mergers across the globe to make sure students and staff really are getting the best of the situation and both institutions, possibly avoiding teething problems.

Merging makes the new university more competitive on a national and international scale; the resulting university is bigger, has more students, and more cash to make bigger and better facilities.

On the other hand, programs and degrees will need to follow the same rigorous review processes as they do now; the standard of the degrees received by people in Adelaide cannot diminish due to the lack of immediate competition.

International student Nancy Frank said, “Our uni has a reputation for hands-on, placement-based learning rather than straight theory,”

“That’s why I chose UniSA over Adelaide in the first place; if they merge they had better not give that part of their education up.”

Over the next six months, University of Melbourne Vice Chancellor Glyn Davis, Dr Jane Lomax-Smith, and former deputy Vice Chancellor to the University of Adelaide and University of Technology Sydney, Ross Milbourne, will join a number of external consultants advising the two SA universities’ governing boards on the prospective merger.

University of Adelaide Chancellor Kevin Scarce and UniSA Chancellor Jim McDowell affirmed in a joint statement that now is the right time [for them] to consider joining together as a single university.

“Now is the time to facilitate a conversation about whether uniting our universities would create a new internationally renowned university of scale that would be well placed to anticipate and respond to this changing landscape,” they said.

“We need to determine whether this would enable us to deliver greater access and benefits to students, create more opportunities for staff, enable greater collaboration with and contribution to our community.”

The Finnish study also points out the dangers of merging for economic progress; education is often stated as a reason to go ahead, but proposals rarely suggest how they are going to better their education by becoming a combined university.

Attention in proposals is instead given to administration issues, and the benefits and funding for research.

Researchers and academics not only benefit from the funding boost of one large university, but also the new, higher international status of the merged university.

However, researchers and higher academic staff are not the only staff at a university, and a merger could put the jobs of tutors, professors and others at risk; merging of departments, facilities and teams can have dramatic results—job cuts as what was previous two positions at separate universities becomes one position at one university.

Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham and Premier Steven Marshall have also supported the move.

“I welcome today’s announcement between two universities that have such distinctive but complementary missions,” Mr Birmingham said.

“It’s pleasing to see the University of Adelaide and South Australia (SA) acknowledging that bold leaps may be required to deliver higher education that best serves SA’s future requirements.”

“I applaud the universities of Adelaide and SA for their courage in addressing this long-standing issue head-on,” Mr Marshall said.

“No matter what the outcome of this process, their intention to work together shows that both institutions have the best interests of SA and its prosperity at heart.”

But despite the prospective outlooks from both the institutions and the Federal Government, merging proposals often overlook how students benefit from this new university in comparison to the old universities.

This is a concern we are already seeing in Adelaide, as many students have made similar remarks, questioning the implications the merge would have on degrees and the reputation of both institutions.

This can mostly be avoided, the Finnish study concludes, so long as the proposal process says open and communicates as often as possible with those who will feel the effects: the students and staff.

“I personally would be surprised if it actually went ahead though,” Mr Colsey said.

“I think the two universities are philosophically very different, and I suspect there are different things that each university would want the other to do that they won’t agree on.”

In a media release to staff and students, the University of South Australia Student Association (USASA) said USASA Student Representatives will begin to conduct campus visits to compile student feedback independently of the University.

USASA President Jordan Mumford said “I have spoken to the Vice-Chancellor about this announcement, and my immediate focus will be ensuring that the student voice is at the heart of this process.”

“I look forward to speaking to students across all six University of South Australia campuses, and making sure your views on this issue are heard.”

These dates will be made available through USASA’s promotional channels.

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