History tells us two things about university marriages.

Firstly, there is many a change of heart between the engagement and the actual tying of the knot.

Second, among those that do proceed, most are not really mergers, but more acquisitions or absorptions of smaller niche bodies by a larger parent.

So the plan to forge a new vessel from two comprehensive comparatively-sized universities in South Australia, Uni Adelaide and Uni SA, is unusual. It not only has political and institutional wind in its sails, but scale on both port and starboard. Indeed Jason Clare, federal Minister for Education described it as “the biggest merger of two universities in the world ever”. But will the maxi so created perform better than the sum of its parts?

The French experience with high end mergers suggests yes. Based on the ARTU meta-ranking, Paris-Saclay jumped 90 places these last two years to knock on the door of the top 50, while Paris Science et Lettres rose to 31 globally. Notwithstanding this, the coalescence of Paris-Sorbonne and Université Pierre et Marie Curie as Sorbonne University in 2018 saw it drop 5 places since to 57.

We have had a crack at calculating this for the new Adelaide University, enjoining the University of South Australia and the University of Adelaide. We used the three chief global ranking systems along with their aggregate ARTU to smooth over-reliance on reputation, research performance and pedagogic metrics. This involved analysis of the 25 component scores for each university, estimating a value in each for the combined university, and then referencing these against competitor performance. As summarised below, the new institution we speculate is likely to rise to 75th in the world.

Ranking U. Adelaide Uni SA “Adelaide University” “Adelaide University” compared to the next higher-ranked uni
QS 109 363 98 +11
THE 88 335 82 +6
ARWU 132 507 102 +30
ARTU 90 321 75 +15

We acknowledge this “guesstimation” is hardly precise science. Scale-independent metrics such as Highly Cited Researchers, award winners, publication numbers, and Nature and Science papers, will clearly rise and referencing them to the competition is relatively straightforward. But scale-dependent metrics need reverse engineering. Citation scores, for instance, will fall in the merger, this dilution proving influential as QS’ citations/faculty are worth 20 per cent and Times Higher’s FWCI-like citations score 30 per cent. Overall, per student or per staff ratios are a mixed bag, reflecting the differing strengths (and weaknesses) each university brings to the table. Finally reputation, (50 per cent of QS, 33% per cent of THE), always a bit of a wild card, will depend on brand recognition, likely balancing the retained Adelaide moniker with the absence of UniSA from survey respondent lists.

Then there are further uncertainties, firstly time. Given it will take at least two years to bed down the new institution, we have modelled projections on 2028. This is necessarily based on current performance, yet some measurement windows run for five and even ten years.

Next, there are significant methodological changes afoot for both QS and THE, the transitional impact of which is unclear.

Finally and despite the undertaking of no net job losses, there is a major opportunity for strategy and leadership to reshape the new university – which is, after all, the point.

The Nobel Prize winning economist Ronald Coase argued for a sweet spot in the size of corporations, balancing the advantages of scale on the one hand with the need to avoid bureaucratic unwieldiness on the other. As Australian universities are already comparatively huge by international standards, the results of this merger experiment will be telling.

Rankings are admittedly imperfect, but are acknowledged as influential in enrolling international students, attracting philanthropic industry and government funding, and in the recruitment and retention of top notch staff. The AFR speculated that the merger would catapult the new university into the top 100, but as we show the existing U Adelaide is already there at 90th.

Our prediction that the new university should rise at least 15 places in the shorter term, and maybe more downstream, should see it leapfrog UWA. So how will the competition respond?

Against the background of decades long stalled discussions about mergers in Perth, it’s noteworthy that both UWA and Curtin are higher on the starting ladder (85th and 190th) than their SA counterparts. Indeed UniSA, the lowest ranked Australian university in ARTU’s top 400, is already 14 slots behind Flinders.

Food for thought for the sandgropers.

Nicholas Fisk is DVC Research & Enterprise  and  Daniel Owens is Executive Director, Research & Enterprise at UNSW Sydney



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