Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide, Mornings with David Bevan
Topics: Proposed University of Adelaide and University of South Australia merger
David Bevan: Let’s just quickly, before the headlines, talk to Simon Birmingham. This has been around for a while, this discussion that Adelaide University and Uni SA should get together, they should merge. And Sonya will be talking to the universities later on this afternoon. Very important parts of our landscape, our community, are these two big universities. It’s going to be a big change if they get together. Simon Birmingham is the Federal Education Minister, so he’s watching this closely. Good morning Simon Birmingham.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning David and good morning to your listeners.
David Bevan: Will you be briefed on this further today?
Simon Birmingham: I will, as is revealed in today’s ‘Tiser, The vice-chancellors, I believe are releasing a discussion paper as the next step for their consultations and they’re going to speak to me about content of that discussion paper and where things are up to. This’ll be the next in a series of meetings that we’ve had on the topic. My view has been that I’m pleased, as you said in your intro, this topic has been around for a long time, it’s been discussed almost every time there’s been a chance in vice-chancellor or chancellor or the like, and so I’m pleased that we’re now going through a proper exhaustive public process, which will hopefully bring finality to the idea. And if it stacks up, great. If it doesn’t, well then everybody can move on too.
David Bevan: Well, they obviously think it is, and they’re going to release a discussion paper today which will say it’s a cracker of an idea. I hope they come up with something better than: it will change Adelaide’s tag as the city of churches. I mean, really. We need something- a better reason than that, don’t we?
Simon Birmingham: It’s got to be assessed with a very clinical approach. There are around 60,000 students across the two universities at present. They are of course big financial institutions. They’re in currently positions of strength – on their latest financial reports, both had significant surpluses and together around $100 million of budget surplus. So they’re big, healthy, successful institutions. They contribute a lot to our economy by preparing our workforce for the future, through their research undertaking, through the international student cohort that they attract, and of course the merger should only go ahead if the end result is going to be better educational opportunities for South Australian students in preparing our workforce, a better capacity to attract high value international students, and better opportunities for research collaboration. These are the basics and fundamentals of a university.
David Bevan: We’ve got a text here saying: this is a bad thing. Mergers, they always mean job cuts.
Simon Birmingham: Well, I don’t think we want to look at it just through the prism of how many people are employed in either institution. Ultimately you could end up with a combined entity that was bigger and more successful in terms of its research collaboration globally, in terms of attracting international students. And if that’s the case, there may well be many more jobs in Adelaide, generated as a result of it. But my view is that there are three key fundamentals there; the provision of essential services to South Australian students, to prepare them for jobs and economic opportunities in the state, the research undertaking that is so essential, and then the international engagement and particularly those international students. And if it gets a tick across those, that it’s going to provide better outcomes for the state, then all well and good. As I say, if it doesn’t, if they go through a proper process and it’s very clear, well then, if the answer is no, everybody knows where they stand and each university can get on for the next few decades with certainty without this question being posed every couple of years.
David Bevan: Would it still be called Adelaide University?
Simon Birmingham: Look, that’s for the institutions and this process.
David Bevan: Because, yeah. You spend more than 100 years creating a brand – what would I know?
Simon Birmingham: Well indeed. Look, I think that is- there clearly would be strong arguments and views around that. Of course, I think there are the threshold questions to answer before you get to the name of the institution. So again, I think there’s more important matters, but if they were to merge then the name becomes an important consideration.
David Bevan: You could call it the Marjorie Jackson-Nelson…
Simon Birmingham: Poor Marjorie Jackson-Nelson, we should probably make sure that there’s something significant named without controversy after our former governor.
David Bevan: Yes. Much loved governor.
Simon Birmingham: But it’s an important process, it’s a welcome process, even if the universities agree to proceed with it, there are of course a number of hurdles. There would be regulatory approvals that I would have to give from a federal perspective. We of course provide vast levels of funding to universities at record levels and growing. In fact, the two universities have seen significant growth in their funding over the last few years, nearly 60 per cent in base funding growth for Adelaide Uni since 2009. And nearly 50 per cent for Uni SA base funding since 2009. But also, the State Parliament would have to amend the acts of Parliament under which the universities are established.
David Bevan: Well, I think the universities are the only people who have got money in terms of throwing up big buildings, big projects. Just look at North Terrace. Simon Birmingham, thank you for your time.
Simon Birmingham: My pleasure David.
David Bevan: Liberal Senator for South Australia and Federal Education Minister.