Ugly duck­ling takes flight

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - Adam Gray­car is pro­fes­sor of pub­lic pol­icy at Flin­ders Univer­sity.

Po­lit­i­cal fiat and in­sti­tu­tional cat­tle-trad­ing might not amount to an aus­pi­cious ori­gin for a univer­sity. Yet the fact that the Univer­sity of South Aus­tralia has ne­go­ti­ated as an equal with its Group of Eight neigh­bour, the Univer­sity of Ade­laide, over a pro­posed merger is tes­ta­ment to just how far that in­sti­tu­tion has come in the 30 years since its lessthan-im­mac­u­late con­cep­tion.

Al­though the merger talks were ended last week, the idea of amal­ga­mat­ing two in­sti­tu­tions with very dif­fer­ent his­to­ries shows how a mod­ern univer­sity can quickly at­tain the in­sti­tu­tional clout once viewed as the pre­serve of the old guard.

Ade­laide was South Aus­tralia’s only univer­sity for al­most 100 years af­ter its cre­ation in 1874. By 1966, Flin­ders Univer­sity had dou­bled the count; and there was a plethora of other higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions that, by the late 1980s, had mostly co­a­lesced into three in­sti­tu­tions: an agri­cul­tural col­lege, the South Aus­tralian In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy (SAIT) and the South Aus­tralian Col­lege of Ad­vanced Ed­u­ca­tion (SACAE).

Then, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, which pro­vided most of the fund­ing, abol­ished the bi­nary di­vide and an­nounced that it would bring the ad­vanced ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor (poly­tech­nics, in the UK ver­nac­u­lar) into the univer­sity sec­tor. In South Aus­tralia, how­ever, it would fund no more than three uni­ver­si­ties.

The scram­ble was on to de­velop a work­able merger model. For about two years, nu­mer­ous de­bates and work­ing par­ties grap­pled with the is­sue, but the aca­demics could not agree, and the politi­cians showed no lead­er­ship.

Ade­laide was pow­er­ful. Its fac­ulty thought the merger talks be­neath them, and all the univer­sity-ed­u­cated state Cabi­net min­is­ters were its alumni. Mean­while, a merger be­tween SAIT and Flin­ders was tor­pe­doed at the last mo­ment by Flin­ders aca­demics, who con­sid­ered their pro­posed col­leagues in­fe­rior.

But then a Univer­sity of Auck­land alum­nus, Mike Rann, be­came South Aus­tralia’s min­is­ter for higher ed­u­ca­tion. He ap­pointed me – a Univer­sity of New South Wales grad­u­ate – to run the min­istry. Our task was to crash through – or crash.

Af­ter much ne­go­ti­a­tion, it was pro­posed that the SAIT and most of the SACAE would be merged, while the agri­cul­tural col­lege would go to Ade­laide.

Rann, who later went on to be­come state premier, wanted the new univer­sity to fo­cus on, among other things, eq­uity and Indige­nous ed­u­ca­tion. The draft leg­is­la­tion was writ­ten in one af­ter­noon, but while ma­jor ed­u­ca­tional and stu­dent mat­ters were quickly re­solved in con­sul­ta­tion, some more mun­dane is­sues took much longer.

Trans­fer­ring land ti­tles and as­sets turned out to be com­plex and te­dious. So did find­ing an in­terim leader for the new univer­sity – on ac­count of the leg­isla­tive stip­u­la­tion that it be a 12-month, non-re­new­able ap­point­ment. For the sake of con­ti­nu­ity, the di­rec­tor of the SAIT was of­fered the role, but he would not ac­cept the ti­tle of “in­terim” vicechan­cel­lor – sort­ing that took many meet­ings and ne­go­ti­a­tions (we caved in even­tu­ally).

Then there was the tug of war over the highly re­garded and ex­ter­nally well­funded School of Phar­macy. It was lo­cated at the SAIT, and the new univer­sity des­per­ately wanted to keep it. But Ade­laide wanted it as a tro­phy, and its staff were keen to join Ade­laide’s med­i­cal school. The gov­ern­ment did not have a ma­jor­ity in the up­per house, so the leg­is­la­tion to es­tab­lish the new univer­sity was on shaky ground. An in­tense lob­by­ing cam­paign threat­ened to block it if Ade­laide didn’t get its way.

Long ne­go­ti­a­tions led to a Yes Min­is­ter so­lu­tion. In re­turn for pas­sage of the bill, the gov­ern­ment agreed to a re­view of health sciences ed­u­ca­tion (it would have been too crass and nar­row to have a re­view of phar­macy alone). But when the panel re­ported 12 months later, the is­sue had lost its cur­rency and the School of Phar­macy stayed with the Univer­sity of South Aus­tralia.

Nearly 30 years on, South Aus­tralia has over­taken Flin­ders on most re­search met­rics. It has re­cently be­gun jointly op­er­at­ing a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar hos­pi­tal and health sciences precinct with Ade­laide: the corner­stone of any fu­ture amal­ga­ma­tion if both par­ties ever de­cide to re­vive uni­fi­ca­tion plans.

De­spite last week’s set­back, merger ad­vo­cates will con­tinue to ar­gue that the com­ple­men­tary strengths of the two uni­ver­si­ties will al­low the sum of their parts to be even more com­pet­i­tive. Be that as it may, that the merger was an ini­tia­tive rather than a grudg­ing re­sponse to po­lit­i­cal co­er­cion un­der­lines that 1990’s ugly duck­ling has be­come some­thing of a swan.

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