Posted 12/04/2022 by: Professor David Lloyd

I believe that it pays in life to be consistent. So perhaps I'll start with sending you off to read this before you read any further here. Come back when you're done.

Are you back? Good.

That’s where we were 2 years ago and given that a few things have changed in the interim, I thought it appropriate that we should dust off our thinking - to see if we are consistent.

As you'll be aware there is now established state government policy which pertains to 'A South Australian University Merger'. This key Labor economic policy position was advanced in October 2020, well in advance of the recent State election which has afforded the new government its mandate. Our new Premier has been clear and consistent on his intention to advance this policy position in his first term in office. The Premier’s policy position is appropriately bold and visionary and doubtless intended to stimulate debate and to elevate our thinking for the future. That’s a great thing to do and it should be welcomed.

At the risk of self-plagiarising, it is always worth thinking on whether the tertiary education landscape of South Australia could be even better geared than it currently is to support the State and generations of South Australians going forward, to truly differentiate Adelaide as Australia’s City of Learning.

That does behove us though, long before charting any paths to implementing any outcomes, to also reflect on whether we are looking at the right outcome and, importantly, as to whether we are asking the right questions.

If I was so reflecting, through a policy lens, the first, fundamental question I’d ask, is whether you need a merger to create a ‘top 100’ university.  

My answer to that question is ‘no, not really’. I say this from my experience as a former DVCR whose first ever press engagement was to explain why their university was suddenly ranked outside the world’s top 100 for the first time in its considerable history (and not on my watch). The press didn’t come back to ask what it was we did to take the institution all the way up to inside the world’s top 50 within 5 years of that unwanted top 100 plus ranking. Had they asked, the answer was the application of a combination of sound strategy and good management.

Which begets another key consideration around the fundamental question, as to whether a merger would actually give you a top 100 university. The answer to that is – ‘maybe it could’ – so much of it depends though on what kind of a top 100 university you’re looking for. Some combinations of some institutions in a 3 into 2 equation would likely get you to within shouting distance of top 100, or just into it, once bedded down and operating coherently (how long that would take is an entirely different question), assuming the process of integrating the equation didn’t derail productivity in teaching and research on the way through. Of course, If you didn’t have the patience for this and you were already within coo-ee of a top 100 spot, you might try to hire some Nobel laureates (or better still grow your own) and/or a couple of Fields medallists, or trade in what you’ve got for a bunch of new research groups that just focus on publishing science and nature papers, and then you’d be all set for a top 100 position in the Shanghai ARWU. Those types of focused initiatives would certainly meet the stated ambition, but likely not the wider economic outcomes sought in the policy.

Another thing that is raised in the policy document concerns size. The old maxim size doesn’t matter is applicable here. And not just for the maintenance of self-esteem. Bigger, in and of itself, is not better. Better is better. I could supply many, many factual and detailed graphs to back this point up – but the short version is best reduced to one of those IQ probing expositions:

Many Australian universities are large. The majority, but not all, of the Australian universities currently ranked in the world’s top 100 are large. The majority, but not all, of the non-Australian universities currently ranked in the world’s top 100 are not large. The metrics determining rankings of the world’s top 100 universities are measured on an equal basis agnostic of geography.

Therefore, which of the following statements is true?

  1. An Australian University must be large to be ranked in the world’s top 100.
  2. All large non-Australian Universities rank in the world’s top 100.
  3. The top 100 rankings preference large universities over universities that are not large.
  4. None of the above.

The correct answer is d. The real answer is, if you’re good you’re good. Doesn’t really matter how big you are. End of. Bigger doesn’t automatically mean better. But resources, they can be a determinant of how good you can be. Mergers are consumers of resource in the near to mid-term. Are they the best use of such resources to meet this end? Well-resourced institutions outperform all others in international rankings across the board, big or small. Thinking on how better to resource our institutions is likely to be relevant.

I therefore posit that perhaps we run the risk of seeking the wrong outcome for the right reasons.

Perhaps a better outcome for the same reasons is not to fixate on top 100, but to look more closely as what is better than we currently have. I’d suggest that by striving for better in the first instance you’d get top 100 ranking as a consequence, but you are in no way guaranteed to get both if you start with the latter as your objective.

Better isn’t simply a top 100 ranking. Better is more than that. At a minimum it’s having one of the top 3 Australian universities in this state. That’s interesting. That’s ambitious. That would attract students to SA – domestic and international - in a way that the existing institutions individually cannot achieve. And if that type of ambition was firmly coupled to the other stipulated outcomes desired in the policy position, and found to be achievable within a reasonable timeframe and resourced for success – well, wouldn’t that be worth exploring?

Since our foundation in 1991, UniSA has grown to become the largest provider of university education in this State. More than half of our students are non-school leavers, we have the highest proportions and populations of non-traditional entrants to tertiary education, of low SES students, of regional and remote learners and of Aboriginal students of any of the SA universities – it’s in our DNA, it’s in our foundation Act, it’s in our culture, our strategies, in how we manage ourselves and it’s in our name – University of South Australia.  We’ve also got the largest population of enrolled non-South Australian domestic students – we have national reach and market share. That’s incredibly important for the economics of our institution, and by extension the economics of the state.

None of that commitment to equity, participation and excellence in education has come at the expense of the delivery of economically relevant and transformative research of scale. To cite but one example, our State’s burgeoning space industry is firmly anchored around the SmartSat CRC – a $245m program which was conceived, delivered and led by UniSA. Why stop at one (shiny, new example)? The university’s involvement in the AMIRA minerals research program has been running for 30 years now and has been independently validated as having delivered well in excess of a billion dollars in value returned to the partners involved.

At just 31 years old, UniSA is recognised among the world’s best young universities by QS and THE, who both rank us as a world’s Top 50 Young University.

And if we measure ourselves against universities of all ages, not just our younger peers;

  • We’re number 1 in Australia for Research Impact and Engagement – as determined by the ARC.
  • We’re number 2 in Australia for Industry Research Income – as determined by THE.
  • We’re number 2 in Australia for Quality Education – as determined by THE.

And most importantly, of all the public universities in this country,

  • We’re number 2 in Australia for graduate employability – as determined by QILT.

Would we trade in any of those performance outcomes for a top 100 institutional ranking? Would that ranking move the dial much further? I don’t think so.

So, in research parlance, what is the question we seek to address? Is this about addressing perceptions around individual institutions’ performance, about comparative rankings and hoping for optimistic returns on investment or is it about clearly articulating and seeking a path to demonstrably better outcomes? I’d contend that it has to be the latter. And I wouldn’t predetermine the mechanism to reach the latter until I’d better defined what exactly it was that I wanted to build.

Whatever that may be, it can never come at the expense of the culture, the success, the essence of everything we hold dear about UniSA or, indeed, what’s great and held dear about the other tertiary institutions here in the State. It could only build on them, amplify them, grow them. Any other result would be a waste.

If structured in this fashion, the Premier’s challenge will certainly make for an interesting conversation. Having the conversation doesn’t predetermine the outcome – there are and should be, myriad of those existing in potentia. And having the conversation certainly need not detract from us prosecuting our existing E25 strategy – as evidenced above, it’s going quite well for us, and for the State.

A conversation which challenges us to do better and is clear about what better is and what benefits can flow from better and how better can be realistically achieved is a good conversation to have. One which we could openly welcome, unafraid, based on the importance of the role we play in this State and on how we want to positively shape our collective future – and wholly consistent with a University of Enterprise.

Professor David Lloyd

Through The Big Picture, I hope that our whole community gains a greater and current appreciation of what is going on, how it fits together and how our activities connect and reinforce each other at a whole of enterprise level.


Tag cloud