Two to one, or maybe something new

Some initial thoughts on the possible merger between the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia.

It’s not a secret, there are plans for a merger of two universities in Adelaide. At the moment, we’re in the proposal stage, investigating the viability of the merger and developing a business case for it.

From a number of perspectives, there is a case to be made. Most of these relate to being too small to operate globally. While that may be true, it does make me question whether the purpose of a university has changed so drastically over time.

Universities in Australia are a function of each individual state and not of the national federal government. They are brought into being by an act of state parliament, and while there is an operational distance, they are a public service run for and by the state. The way the merger is being articulated at the moment sees the contribution of universities quite differently. They are now an “exporter” of education, bringing in a billion or so dollars into the local economy from international students. It’s also being framed as a grow house for the next generation of research and skills required by an ambitious military program. These two components are seen as drivers for change and form the basis of merger discussions.

Essentially, South Australian universities are too small to be recognised internationally and would fare far better on rankings across the board if we merged. This would lead to a proposed increase in student numbers to drive that export function and increased research funding because our reputation would rise.

While I’m not unsupportive of these moves, I wonder if they signal a fundamental shift in how we see ourselves. They are certainly a shift from local concerns and push the university's role into a global realm, one we might not all feel comfortable joining.

It also makes me wonder how this approach informs decision-making moving forward.

Risks and Opportunities

Let’s play out the fact that the merger will go ahead. I think it will because the appetite is there to make it happen - the only way I see it being halted is cost. The universities are working away feverishly to pull together a business model before the state government. Part of that will be to gold plate the plans and ensure there are enough golden parachutes on offer for those at risk of losing their job - there will not be two Vice Chancellors. So let’s just say it happens, I think there are a couple of different ways you could set this up:

  1. Elimination: going through the catalogue of services, systems and products offered by the two universities and choosing the “best” one to continue. This is probably the quickest and ”simplest” way to proceed. Simple, as in the choice is binary rather than multifaceted. It’s faster because of this in the short term, but it is incredibly risky and challenging. Systems tend not to work together just because you want them to. There is a lot of tacit knowledge embedded in staff around how things work, and uprooting that creates its own challenges.
  2. Amalgamation: going through the list and merging features from both institutions. Taking longer than elimination, this would be the development of a “best of breed” approach to products and services. The complexity of this approach is that it requires consensus around what “best” looks like. Best is often an emergent and multifaceted property that depends on the individual's perspective and priority. While this way of working has a lot of people and process challenges, this is an opportunity. Consensus onboards people during the process rather than after. It also can be done quickly if facilitated well - but given existing university practices and a history of death by committee, that is a challenge.
  3. Re-creation: taking the knowledge of both institutions to reimagine their functions and ways of working. This requires more imagination, but it starts with a clean slate and asks “what if…?”. Given the size and scale of change, this might seem daunting, but re-imagining and recreating the university as a new entity is a massive opportunity. If you want to discard some of the legacy and deadwood accumulated in the system and structures, now is the time.

While I can see that, in most cases, a mixture of the first two will be adopted, I want to make a case for Re-creation and spend some time there.

Unbundled from the inertia of existing models, re-creation is an opportunity to change how and why we do things radically. It’s an opportunity to be radical and unencumbered. It offers a massive opportunity to be creative and sets the new institution apart.

This is the time for Radical Ideas. Something new is on the table, and I don’t think it is time to shy away from radical ideas. Instead, we should be seeing them out. One of the biggest problems I see in the merger discussion so far is a lack of differentiation. How will this University be different? How will it be unique? Moving to be more relevant to a global audience means entering a crowded marketplace. You have to have something different to sell. You have to have a value proposition, and at the moment, I don’t see one other than the geographic location. It’s the same degrees offered at every Australian institution, following the same basic structure, using the same tools and teaching techniques in almost identical rooms. What is it about Adelaide University that’s different?

Well, here are a couple of ideas:

Set a unified curriculum.

The curriculum is one area you could differentiate quite easily. The curriculum is ripe for disruption because most universities lack a clear and unified vision. It’s murky and messy and often relatable for students. What drives students is the qualification, not the journey they go on or the road they take. Mainly because they don’t know it’s there in the first place, but also because it relates too much to over-ambitious and vague motherhood statements. What if, instead, we made the basis of our curriculum something more real and tangible? The UN Sustainable Development Goals are real and formally agreed to, not by a bunch of white guys but through global collaboration. They provide clarity of mission and a diverse portfolio of ideas that set a bigger mission for higher education. Aligning with the SDGs sets the University up on the global stage as a way to participate and contribute to their development and longevity that benefits the world. This aligns with the global vision of the new university.

Turn costs into income.

Over the last decade, one of the most innovative actions I’ve seen is when organisations turn costs into income. Renewable energy is one of those, where instead of paying for power ad infinitum, installing solar and wind provides power and generates income. It's a capital investment, but universities are designed to be here for the long term. So what if we apply this idea to other areas? One that Is ripe for disruption is IT infrastructure. At the moment, universities spend ever-increasing amounts of money on IT systems, and that cost is only set to rise. As Cory Doctorow points out, platforms (and, more broadly, businesses in general) follow a pattern of enshittification:

First, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.

Most universities have benefitted from sharp pricing for IT services across the board, leading to the disestablishment of internal IT services in favour of those provided on the cloud. Software and hardware as a service have seen most universities eliminate on-site internal servers (the ones that formed the original Internet) and move everything into the cloud. The same can be said for student information systems and the learning management system - all cloud-based and monopolistic. Almost every University now spends millions of dollars annually as a tax to Microsoft and AWS for hardware and a handful of software vendors to run their core business. Without spending that money, the University could not exist. They are now trapped into paying this indefinitely, and because the competition has been eaten up over time, we are now in a monopolistic vice. Over the next few years, we will see the vice tighten, and the costs rise.

The only way to exit this state is to escape it entirely. Applying the same ideals as renewable energy - what if the new University set itself up to run independently as a sovereign entity, not reliant on 3rd party vendors and their costs? What if it embraced open-source software and collective hardware, not just as a consumer but as a contributor? What if it then sold those services and knowledge to others? Aligned with the SDGs, this could create a global powerhouse of development that would directly improve the University, the globe and the local community. This could start a new industry and sector in the state, which aligns with several defence objectives. This is how AWS started - a cost centre transformed into an income generator. Universities consume so much IT yet contribute little back to the broader community in positive ways. This could change all that while creating a new EdTech sector based here in Adelaide but with a global outlook.

Reimagine jobs and work

One of the most significant changes and challenges over the last 20 years has been in the work required by a university and what jobs are needed to do it. As universities have scaled up, the requirements on staff have changed. The traditional role of the academic as a researcher with a side gig in teaching is nothing more than an antiquated memory. It no longer exists, and nor can it. The requirements have changed so dramatically - volumes for teaching are massive, research requirements border on ludicrous, and the administration required to run a modern university is off the charts. The academy of old is no more and needs to be rethought and reimagined.

To cope with the seismic changes in academia, a new and substantial change has occurred alongside it - the rise of precarious work. To allow the academy to continue with its role, it has filled the gaps with ever-increasing numbers of casual staff. We are now operating in a world where most university teaching is carried out by casual staff, surviving contact to contact on barely sustainable wages, with holidays or sick leave and no career progression available.

There’s also the commensurate rise in professional staff - those required to manage and ensure things are done, even to a minimal degree, in a way that marries the requirements of operating a large-scale and legislated industry.

Work at the University needs to be reimagined. We need to lose the current structures that hide the workers and the jobs to be done while at the same time maintaining a system of power and benefit for a chosen few incumbents of the system. We need to rethink work and how to balance it with life, health and prosperity. We have to move away from models of extraction and exploration. We must be fair, free and sustainable in our approach to work. To utilise technology not as a system of oppression but as a way of gaining freedom. To look at jobs as things we want to do rather than a crushing requirement to sustain life.

Be visionary, be real.

Universities have earned themselves a reputation for operating in ivory towers. Much of what happens within higher education is distinct and separate from the rest of the world. Now is not the time for that. I would love a new University to be explicit with its mission to engage with local problems, to ground research in community issues and to develop knowledge to aid and understand our local communities. Whilst a global perspective is important, we have to see universities as places that are embedded and serve their community as a primary purpose, but with connections that ensure we are situated within a global network. This doesn’t require us to focus on a specific field of research but instead ground it in our own communities. Make it relatable, connected and involved rather than aloof, disconnected and abstract. The UN SDGs would help with that as a way to focus efforts, but being grounded in local initiatives is critical. We must maintain the global perspective while at the same time supporting the lands we stand on.

Learning is life.

In Australia, we have been steadily moving towards a problem the US has been struggling with for the last two decades - how to balance getting an education with living.

On the face of it, this shouldn't be something we should consider. Still, the financial realities, the cost of getting an education with current wages, job insecurity and a fragile economy mean that education is becoming a choice rather than an expectation. When students have to choose between a lifetime of debt and insecure work vs the same wage but without the obligation, education will be the loser. The value proposition of higher education has been diminishing over time. We must accept our role in contributing to student debt and failing to engage with students holistically beyond their learning and teaching.

As a new university, we should be thinking more holistically about our dealing with students. One way to do that is to offer an all-encompassing undergraduate experience that combines learning, accommodation and work. Rather than competing priorities, what if we ensured that they worked together? The acts of living, learning and work all actively contributed to and benefited each other. As students, we created a whole life experience, ensuring that they had the space to grow and learn as individuals in ways that benefit their future.

One simple way we could do that is to recognise that the university requires labour, and students can (and already do) play a role in that. What if we formalised that, planned for it and ensured it fed into a broader experience? We could offer flexible learning arrangements if we allowed students to speed up and slow down their studies. To make it "seasonal" and ensure sufficient breaks in learning for other things to occur. This could reduce most students' mental strain and give them time to gain additional skills and knowledge tangential to study. They could be involved in university projects to enable research and support our global mission, and most importantly, they would be paid to do this. By planning this more holistically, we can make learning with the new university far more beneficial financially and as citizens actively contributing to their community.

Learning is lifelong

Education shouldn’t be terminal and end in a degree. As more and more work shifts to knowledge work and as individuals who are more likely to switch fields and careers throughout our lives, we have to move towards an ongoing education model. One that can be accessed throughout our lives rather than as a one-off. We actually need a model of lifelong learning. In some ways, this may not always be about access to courses but the resources, libraries, facilities, networks, and research that universities contain. What if we made the university a porous experience? One that you flow through repeatedly as your life and career change. You can move through and engage with the University in various ways, and it is priced accordingly. Whilst many have suggested a subscription model, that is certainly part of it, we need to understand that there will be periods of active and passive engagements, so it must be a model that can change and adapt to different stages in life. We need differentiated products that support this model and tiered pricing that not only covers costs but, importantly, instils value. In this way, we can move to a funding model that is less reliant on the ebbs and flows of government but one that aligns with our students and aids them in developing into citizens. It is moving to create ongoing and committed relationships rather than the "one night stand" equivalents we currently have.