Legislative Council: Wednesday, October 18, 2023


Parliamentary Committees

Joint Committee on the Establishment of Adelaide University

The Hon. R.B. MARTIN (16:05): I move:

That the final report of the committee be noted.

I am pleased to present to the house the final report of the Joint Committee on the Establishment of Adelaide University. South Australia has three major public universities: the University of Adelaide, founded in 1874; Flinders University, founded in 1966; and the University of South Australia, formed in 1991 from the merger of the South Australian Institute of Technology and the South Australian College of Advanced Education. These three institutions operate separately and have historically performed competitively in the context of global rankings.

On 2 July 2023, the state government signed a heads of agreement with the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia regarding the proposed amalgamation of those two universities. The agreement included a proposal for the state government to invest $300 million in two perpetual funds and other funding to support the proposed amalgamation.

In summary, the government has committed $200 million to a perpetual research fund and $100 million to a perpetual for purpose fund. The government will maintain control of this money and invest it via SAFA. The new university will receive the proceeds of this investment to fund research and to provide bursaries, etc.

The government has also committed to $10 million per year for the first three years to support the attraction of international students to Adelaide University and $114.5 million to purchasing land currently part of the University of South Australia's campuses at Magill and Mawson Lakes.

The committee was established on 6 July 2023 to inquire into and report on the amalgamation proposal within the terms of reference. In doing so, we have given close attention to the legislative, funding and governance arrangements that would provide for a university that facilitates access to university education, has a modern governance framework, generates high-quality research, engages with industry and business, and is positioned to be highly ranked against universities globally.

Ten members from both this chamber and the other place have diligently considered the written and oral evidence. It has been a significant undertaking. The vigorous debate, insightful questions and deep commitment to understanding the issues involved in the proposed amalgamation have resulted in a report that I believe fairly represents the evidence presented and gathered.

I sincerely thank all who took the time to make a submission as well as those who provided oral evidence to the committee. The information and insights gained through this have been invaluable in shaping our thinking and the recommendations in this report.

The committee received 86 written submissions and heard evidence from 47 witnesses. We received 381 form letters in support of the National Tertiary Education Union submission. We heard a lot about universities and their roles—their roles in education and research and the direct and indirect benefits across the economy. We heard a wide range of perspectives on the proposed amalgamation, both for and against its establishment.

The proposal to create the new Adelaide University is not a proposition to be taken lightly. It comes with some big challenges but equally big potential and opportunities. It will represent a substantial change to the public university landscape in South Australia and is not without some risk.

South Australia has always enjoyed a competitive university sector delivering lasting economic and social benefits to the state. The committee received evidence that competition between universities globally remains fierce and is likely to increase over coming decades. The proposal to establish Adelaide University must be viewed against the increasingly competitive environment for universities generally and the risk to the state's interests in taking no action to strengthen the sector.

Some of the submissions and witnesses in support of the proposed merger contended that it would likely deliver long-term economic benefits to South Australia, increase the international ranking of a new institution when compared to extant institutions in the sector, attract more international students, enhance research output and quality, and provide possible benefits of scale, including the reduction of barriers to research intensity and collaboration.

Submissions and witnesses against the proposed merger raised concerns that it would lead to redundancies or job losses through efficiency measures, creating staff uncertainty; deliver an inferior student and staff experience, arising partly from the scale of the new proposed institution; deliver an education model out of step with the ongoing review of the national higher education sector as part of the Australian Universities Accord; reduce the quality of research through the failure to retain leading researchers; and divert key staff from their core teaching and research roles while they are engaged in completing the merger scheme arrangement.

However, on balance the committee considers that the economic and social interests of the state would likely be advanced by the amalgamation of the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia into the new Adelaide University. The committee does raise some concerns and has made six further recommendations.

One of these is around the necessity for the universities to put appropriate measures in place to monitor, evaluate and sufficiently invest in the ongoing actioning of the risk management analysis and consider additional risk management measures. Another is around additional oversight, legislative and administrative measures, including for the management of the government funds committed to the merger, the representation of staff and students on the university council and annual reporting requirements.

The committee's deliberations have occurred in the light of the Australian Universities Accord process. The recently released interim report has highlighted the importance of themes such as access and attainment; equity in participation; sustainable funding and financing; and more predictable funding for research, innovation and research training. The committee believes that the legislation establishing Adelaide University should reflect the access, equity and governance priorities identified in the Australian Universities Accord interim report. We have made a recommendation to that effect.

Student associations play an important role in university life, providing student advocacy and financial, cultural, academic and health-related support. The Adelaide University Union has strongly argued to the committee that the establishment of a student association for the new university should be explicitly included in the legislation, and the committee agrees that there is merit in doing so.

The future use of land at Magill and Mawson Lakes currently occupied by the University of South Australia is of significant interest to the local community. The committee received submissions highlighting concerns, from traffic congestion to the loss of green space, amenity and community-accessible facilities, including the childcare centre. The committee is in favour of timely local council and public engagement on the future of this land.

We also see value in the early identification of the possible additional investment required for the proposed Adelaide University to meet its commitments to tertiary education in regional South Australia. Finally, in the interests of equity and to be sure that no public university is disadvantaged as a result of this merger, consideration should be given to ensuring potential investment for Flinders University.

There are significant opportunities in establishing a new university in South Australia through the merger of the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia. While the committee understands that this process is not without its risks, we are satisfied that the assessment of risk and the steps proposed to mitigate such risks, both by the universities and in considering the recommendations of the report, are thorough. The committee believes overall that the merger is in the best interests of the state.

I thank my fellow members of the committee for their diligent and probing questions, their commitment to identifying the key matters of concern, and the collegial nature of our discussions. I believe this was a valuable process that will help inform the proposed amalgamation of the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia in their work towards establishing Adelaide University.

I would also like to acknowledge the staff involved with the committee and thank them for their work and dedication to ensuring that we remained on schedule and reported to the house in a timely manner. I commend this report to the house.

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS (16:14): I rise to speak in relation to the report. In so doing, I want to recognise the work of all members of the committee: the Hon. Reggie Martin, the Hon. Jing Lee, the Hon. Connie Bonaros and my colleague the Hon. Tammy Franks, who represented the Greens on the committee for the first half of the process while I was on leave. I really appreciate the work that the Hon. Tammy Franks did on the committee in terms of raising issues on behalf of the Greens.

I think it is worth noting that this committee would not have occurred if not for the work of the Greens and the work of the Hon. Frank Pangallo and the Liberal opposition. When it became clear that the two universities wanted to merge, the Greens came out—with the support of the Hon. Frank Pangallo and the Liberal opposition—and said that we wanted there to be a parliamentary inquiry.

At that time, the government said no. They said, 'Any delay is denial of this proposal. We can't possibly have the parliament cast a ruler over this, because that's going to delay the whole process and it has to be done at breakneck speed.' Luckily, they relented and we did manage to get a parliamentary inquiry established. I want to recognise the work of the Hon. Frank Pangallo and the work of the opposition in making that happen.

It was disappointing, though, that what we got was a committee process that was less than ideal because it was operating under a very tight time frame. The proposal that the Greens had put forward, which was supported by the Hon. Frank Pangallo and the opposition, had a much longer reporting time frame and I think would have provided more of an opportunity to ventilate the key issues. That said, we welcome the fact that there was some level of parliamentary scrutiny.

I think it would have been optimum for there to be a commission of inquiry into this proposal—an independent commissioner who could have given a recommendation on whether or not this was indeed in the public interest. Instead, what we saw was a politicised process where you had the two vice-chancellors lining up with the government to advocate for this reform. I think that has been regrettable, because it has undermined some of the public confidence in this proposal.

You will note the majority recommendations, and the Hon. Reggie Martin has spoken to those. The Greens dissent from those recommendations. We have submitted our own minority report and I will talk to a few of those elements. In particular, it is worth noting that we reserve our position on any bill that comes before the parliament. Although I note that, as a result of the One Nation/one university/one SA-Best deal that was announced in the media earlier, our position may not be that relevant to the government, because it seems that some of my colleagues have signed along the dotted line before the bill had even been introduced into this place.

Just to talk to some of the elements of the inquiry and the issues that the Greens have thought are pertinent, one of the key elements for us that has been of concern is the business case. I have a motion before this chamber that we are going to deal with subsequently, so I will not speak on that at length other than to say that the Greens have always been of the view that the full business case should be publicly released and that the universities should disclose any of the external consultants that have worked on this project.

We know that there has been, rightly so, controversy in the public realm about the role of consultants. The public has a right to know who has worked on this proposal, and the Greens are calling for that. We are also calling for the government to review its processes around how it works with external parties in the future. If we are going to be talking about putting public money on the table, then surely commercial-in-confidence should not be used as a shield to prevent the public from getting access to key information. That is something that I think needs to be looked at, and it is an important principle for our democracy.

Another key issue for the Greens, and it is one that was raised through a number of the submissions that came before the committee, was that of governance. What we do not want to see in any new university is a continuation of the status quo. There is a real opportunity here to see more staff and more students playing a role in university decision-making.

We would really like to see a majority of elected members on the university council being staff and students and we would really like to see more diversity on the council. Rather than just having fossil fuel barons, former Liberal Party politicians on university councils, it would be great to see more diversity: people of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, First Nations people, people who have experience in the university sector and bring real expertise, rather than just corporate appointments. That is an issue for the Greens.

We would also like to see the minutes and agendas of university councils being made publicly available and their meetings happening in public. These are public institutions; they are not secret societies that should be able to close the door and shield themselves from public view. These are institutions that get significant investment in terms of public money and the community has a right to know what goes on within these institutions.

Another issue that we are concerned about is the remuneration of vice-chancellors. The two vice-chancellors in South Australia at the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia receive over a million dollars a year each. It is concerning when one considers the pay that is given to the Prime Minister or the Premier, for instance. Indeed, I refer to the comments of the Hon. Chris Schact, former Labor minister and a big proponent of the merger, who advised the committee:

I think a million dollars for a vice-chancellor of any university, when the Prime Minister of Australia gets half a million, is a bit ridiculous.

We agree, and that is why we have been arguing for a cap. I did note some of the evidence around rankings and I was concerned that there was contradictory evidence provided to the committee around rankings. Some academics were concerned that the rankings for the institution may dip considerably in the short term and the impact of this on the potential to recruit new students—in particular, international students—is unknown.

The Greens are also concerned about the jobs and employment conditions. The long-term impact of any merger on jobs in the university sector is still unknown, but we note the submission of SA Unions where they called on any new university to prohibit short-term casual contracts and to also look at some of these gig economy style arrangements that put workers in the university sector often at a real disadvantage in terms of their rights. We would like to look at that as part of the new university. I also want to make sure that there is actually a student union as part of any new university and that it gets a legislated minimum return from the student services and amenities fee.

One of the big issues for us, too, has been this question about Flinders University. I welcome the fact that Flinders University students are going to have access to a scholarship fund—that is a good outcome—however, it is not really enough, particularly when all of these other issues have not been addressed.

Might I say, I am concerned that Flinders will not have the potential to apply for research funds. We do not want to see a situation where there is a Hunger Games scenario that is developing between this new institution and Flinders, where they are competing for a narrow pool of money among themselves and where one of our universities is placed at a disadvantage.

Whilst it is true to say that there were some benefits identified with a merger, there are some significant risks as well, and there are some opportunities that come with that. It is really important and I would urge members of this chamber to consider all amendments that come forward—and the Greens intend to move a range of amendments—to see if we can address some of the concerns that were expressed at the committee level, but also to ensure that if we do establish a new university that it models best practice governance, that it better protects the rights of students and of workers; otherwise, why on earth would we go down this path?

As I say, I was surprised to hear news in the media this morning about a deal being brokered with two crossbench members given the fact that the bill has not actually been formally introduced into this chamber and given the fact that no members have had an opportunity to file amendments, nor have any members had an opportunity to consider the amendments. It was disappointing to see members of this house of review give the government a blank cheque. That said, the Greens will keep on pushing to improve this bill and we reserve our right on the legislation.

The Hon. F. PANGALLO (16:24): I thank the Hon. Reggie Martin for tabling the report yesterday, and I thank the Hon. Robert Simms for his well-informed and articulate message today about the report and what transpired. Like him, I have been quite disappointed by the swiftness of today's events, with barely the ink drying on that report after it was tabled yesterday to give us an opportunity to absorb what was in there. I could not read it thoroughly until last night when I went through it.

I admit that I saw elements in there of great merit in this proposal, but it is all supposition—'this could happen' and 'the likelihood that this may happen'. It is all subjective stuff that needs to be substantiated and supported with concrete evidence that it will work, and that is the reason that myself and the Hon. Robert Simms wanted a select committee into this. We are talking about a really big deal. It is important.

When you look at the make-up of both universities, the size of them, and after talking to people at both of those universities, it is actually massive. This is a massive exercise. It is not something that has to be rushed, as has been rushed over the last three months. You have to remember that the Premier himself made an election commitment that there would be an independent commission of inquiry into this merger, and that would have involved all three chancellors: Adelaide, UniSA and Flinders University.

Certainly, I would have looked forward to seeing something like that happen, but that all changed and then suddenly the Premier embarked on this course that this merger had to happen, had to happen quickly, when still so many questions needed to be answered. Those questions still need to be answered thoroughly. To make that announcement this morning I found disappointing. As I said, I only read the report overnight, and I made some notes about areas that I was concerned about and areas that the Hon. Robert Simms has pointed out just a short time ago.

There are areas of concern that have been raised by the National Tertiary Education Union. They supplied a submission that had been signed by more than 200 staff who were involved with the NTEU. They had items that need to be addressed and assurances that need to be given about proper governance, accountability, security of tenure and also the welfare and culture of students on both campuses. There are a lot of things that need to be answered also regarding funding for research and other aspects of financial matters that I do not think the committee had enough time to actually absorb in that period of time.

Nonetheless, we are now told that the legislation is going to be introduced tomorrow. We have not even seen that. It has barely given the opposition and the crossbench—the crossbench being me, the Hon. Mr Simms and the Hon. Tammy Franks—the opportunity to come up with amendments that we think could improve the legislation.

I do not think we ever said that we were going to oppose this. I never said that. I was always adamant that—and I told this to the Premier only a week or so ago—if I felt the proposal stacked up and was in the best interests of South Australia, of South Australian students, of the tertiary sector, I would support it, but this whole thing was just rushed through today. As a result, it is going to make it difficult for amendments to be properly considered.

As I pointed out, there are members of the community, members of the faculties of both Adelaide and UniSA—and at Flinders—who want some questions answered. We certainly do not want to see this project have a catastrophic impact on Flinders University. We do not want to see the enormous work, the research that goes on there, the academic nature of the work and also the campus itself be affected by this when we have this massive institution that is being set up that can in fact even cannibalise what Flinders Uni is doing.

These are the things that we wanted to get assurances on, and we did not want to be rushed into it. The Premier is in such a rush to get this in before the end of the year and just pin another win to his lapel when it really needs serious consideration. That is what I was disappointed about today. I really did not have time to, firstly, fully absorb what was in that report, and then to go out to stakeholders.

I had given stakeholders an assurance that once that report was tabled I would then engage and consult with them and get their viewpoint before formalising a position, and then look at any amendments that needed to be considered by this place in order for us to ensure that, if the proposal did go ahead, it would go ahead and be something that would be financially viable, it would be of great benefit economically to the state, and it would be of great benefit to tertiary education in South Australia.

That is how important this is. It is actually for future generations of students, and you do need to get it right and not rush something through because it is politically expedient for you or because you have done a deal with a couple of members in this place. I do not know what those deals were because I have totally been shut out of the whole thing.

It concerns me that this proposal is going to lack the proper scrutiny that it requires. It should be done—apart from a committee that was selected, perhaps one that was selected or cherrypicked that might bring about a favourable response to the government. That was also my concern. Anyway, all I can say is that I look forward to the legislation coming in, and I will still engage with all the various stakeholders and get their viewpoint on this before the legislation passes.

Again, thank you for the opportunity, and thank you to the Hon. Robert Simms, the Hon. Reggie Martin for his work on that committee, and other members of that committee who worked on it, because I imagine the Premier put them under the pump quite a bit as well to try to get this report out so he can give himself a Christmas present leading into 2024.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. J.S. Lee.