The University Merger: Averting a Consolidation of Damnation
Words by Felix Eldridge
Last June, the Universities of Adelaide and South Australia revealed that they were initiating merger talks, with the intention of creating a singular “Super-Uni”. I would like to encourage the University to accept a general set of guarantees for students, so that students are aware of the potential consequences of such a merger and can be properly insulated from them. If such guarantees are not accepted in some form, it is quite likely that there will be negative effects, such as more expensive but less useful degrees, the loss of staff positions, the curtailing of student representation and the loss of our unique culture.
In all probability, following a merger, university degrees will rise in price but fall in quality. As it stands, Adelaide Uni is one of several universities in SA and must remain competitive to keep enrolments high. As a result, it must spend money on advertising, staff, student services, campus facilities, quality courses and more. It needs to respond to changing circumstances and needs. However, if two of the biggest SA universities merged, the University wouldn’t need to be as competitive as it would have literally reduced a third of the state competition. Although the University would still be competing fiercely for international acclaim, having removed its largest urban-based competitor would give it breathing room to relax standards, reduce services and increase costs. Why would they keep high quality degrees if the local supply for those degrees has dropped, but demand remains the same? I believe that this temptation would be difficult for the University to resist.
There will be a loss of jobs at the University. When two organisations of a similar size merge, there are always job reductions. This is usually why “cost saving” mergers happen in the first place. There don’t need to be as many administrators or faculty staff. Not only will official “duplicated labour” be lost, but often organisations will use the guise of “corporate restructuring” to pursue further redundancies and efficiencies. As a result, there will be a sizable reduction in staff numbers at the merged University. It is interesting to note that the University’s website is only prepared to assure staff that there will be no “immediate” reductions in staff numbers. It does not however, provide any indication of job security after the six-month consultation period, provided they decide to merge. On another side note, one of the members of the advisory delegation, Glyn Davis AC, sacked over 500 staff in one year when he was the Melbourne University’s Vice Chancellor, ostensibly for “efficiency”.
One of the reasons for the merger, according to the email sent to all students, was that the Universities already cooperate with projects, thus they would be more efficient working together. While this might be true in theory, theory does not equate to practise. While the Labor and Liberal parties both exist to represent electors in parliament and though they “cooperate” on a significant portion of legislation, there are significant ideological and practical reasons why they do not merge. Similarly, while universities are also united in the desire to provide education and research, Uni SA and Adelaide Uni are managed differently, specialise in different types of courses, and have a monumental difference in prestige. The competition between the two Universities has been productive, forcing all to continuously seek improvements in service and outcome.
Furthermore, I believe that a merger has the capacity to undermine the student representation at the University. It follows logically that when the two Universities merge, so too will their student representative bodies. Unfortunately, if such an arrangement occurs, the new body will be proportionately smaller than its combined predecessors and will probably be weaker as the University will exploit the opportunity of the merger to rewrite the new body’s constitution and diminish its powers.
The University of Adelaide has a proud heritage. We are the oldest University in the state and the third oldest in the nation, one of only four established before Federation. Our alumni include famous scientists, academics, politicians and more. We have internationally recognised degrees, strong enrolments and a vibrant campus culture. Although the VC assumed that the new University would retain the “Adelaide Brand”, he could not offer a cast iron guarantee, which is what the University needs. As Adelaide Uni is a recognised name, a brand, anything but “Adelaide Uni” will lose the prestige associated with that brand. While Uni SA has contributed much to society, its name pales in comparison to the prestige and recognition of ours. Anything but a guarantee will be an actual economic loss for the University, let alone the nostalgia.
As to what the University can do to ensure that these scenarios do not happen, or to mitigate their effects, the University could make a few guarantees. The University could commit to retaining all staff within the first 10 years of a merger, preserve the “Adelaide University” name, fix costs of degrees to pre-merger rates, enforce standardised quality throughout all degrees, promise to keep a minimum financial lifeline to the new student union, as well as pledge to preserve a genuinely empowered student representative body.
While the University retains the right to refuse all suggestions, whether they be from On Dit articles, directly from students or from public submissions, I sincerely hope that they at least consider them. A merger is a huge leap of faith, both for the institution and its students. A merger is not in itself destructive, but it can have destructive effects. With these guarantees, it would be much easier for the University to win over public opinion, as students would at least have an indication as to how a merger will affect them. After all, the merger is not a forgone conclusion. As the Chancellor himself puts it: “Today’s announcement is the start of a conversation and an exploration, not a destination.” Let us hope that we can at least choose a few of the terms and conditions before we take a great leap into the unknown.