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Merger proponents miss the mark

The whispers went into overdrive within and across the halls of Western Australia’s universities six months ago when the ‘M’ word raised its ugly head, again.

The state’s chief scientist, Peter Klinken, suggested all four WA public universities should merge to create a super institution that would immediately land in the top-50 global rankings, attract world-class academics and become a beacon for international students.

While the proposal made national headlines and attracted an equal share of detractors and supporters, six months on and the silence in those same hallowed halls is deafening.

For those following the lengthy merger antics of the state’s higher education sector, the death of the WA super-institution proposal will come as no surprise because it is simply another case of history repeating itself.

At various times during the past four decades, each of WA’s public universities has been linked to or engaged in some form of unsuccessful merger consideration.

One of the problems with merger discussions held to date is they have been predominantly led by those who possibly have too much at stake or a vested interest or are too close to see the wood from the trees.

It is why an emerging situation in South Australia’s higher education sector might provide some useful lessons for any future university merger talks in WA.

Like the WA situation, SA’s public universities have regularly held merger talks, only for nothing to eventuate after each short flurry of activity.

A merger of the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia was on the cards in 2018 before the proposal was axed at the last minute because of concerns of a possible slide in global rankings post-merger.

Today, a merger of those institutions is back on the cards, except this time the state’s third public institution – Flinders University – has been thrown into the mix.

Newly elected Labor Premier Peter Malinauskas thinks a three-university merger – Adelaide, UniSa and Flinders – would be a boost to SA’s ailing economy.

What is different this time around is that Premier Malinauskas has broadened the responsibility for discussions from those leading the respective universities by establishing a SA University Merger Commission, which is charged with charting a path to merger and concluding how South Australians could be best served by the university sector.

According to a SA government policy document, the commission: “Will include the leadership of the three universities and be headed up by an eminent commissioner with experience in higher education.”

The commission will also engage with business leaders, university unions and student representatives.

Importantly, the policy document notes that: “the state should not start this process with a view about which universities should merge nor which university should teach what degrees.”

The commission will only recommend a merger to universities’ governing councils and the SA government if key criteria are met.

While there is no guarantee the commission will bring about a fruitful result, the government’s strategy represents a new and perhaps more considered and structured approach to facilitating discussions across universities.

Mergers are no magic bullet, however.

If university leaders engaged in authentic collaboration across our institutions, for example, mergers might disappear into the background.

One of the drivers of merger discussions is that some believe we have too much duplication across our universities. For example, WA’s public universities each offer courses in business, law and education.

 If universities were to get together to rethink some of the duplication, it might be a viable alternative to merging.

In relation to the concept of a WA super university, it ignores that the four institutions might have more suitable interstate partners.

 If we were serious about mergers in the sector, we would be trying to source the right partners from across Australia, and not restrict ourselves to within our state boundaries.   

Some WA universities already are in clusters of ‘like’ universities; for example, Murdoch University is part of Innovative Universities Australia, the University of Western Australia is a member of the Group of Eight, and Curtin University is a member of the Australian Technology Network.

If mergers are to proceed, perhaps they would work better within those like-minded groupings.

Professor Gary Martin is chief executive officer of the Australian Institute of Management WA



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