The announcement that Southern Cross and Charles Sturt Universities are joining forces to undertake a feasibility study into establishing a new Commonwealth University left me with very mixed feelings.
I have long argued that New England's universities should cooperate more in the delivery of services within New England as well as the achievement of national and international reach. I am not sure that this message has really got across, perhaps it cannot be got across, in part because of the damage brought about by the creation and subsequent failure of the networked University of New England.
The problem with the new proposed merger is that it cuts directly across New England cooperation, creating new competitive pressures. On the other hand, as someone interested in a professional sense in competitive dynamics within the university sector, I find the proposal quite interesting.
Charles Sturt has always been aggressive and I think astute in a marketing sense. It has grown into a major institution by looking to broaden its base within regional Australia. At the same time, the University of New England badly damaged by the network experiment has tended to narrow its focus.
If we cut through the hype of the initial press release, the proposed new institution involves SCU, Charles Sturt plus a third as yet un-identified interstate university. The entire tenor of the deal is designed to play to current Federal Government pre-occupations - scale, addressing regional skills shortages, national yet regional, the need for Commonwealth control.
We can see this in the words of the press release.The proposal is, and I quote:
designed "to ensure the sustainable provision of quality higher education and research of particular relevance to regional communities in Australia."
“The new institution’s mission would be to expand high quality University educational opportunity in regional Australia, and nationally, through its dispersed campuses, using digital technology and by conducting research of particular relevance to regional Australia.
“It would provide access to the combined discipline strengths of each institution and an enhanced comprehensive course profile.
“Importantly, the integration of our institutions, while maintaining our existing regional campuses, would enhance opportunities across a number of disciplines for all regional students, including in national priority areas such as health.
“It would also contribute to a sustainable and professional labour force, networked knowledge communities, TAFE pathways and international engagement."
“Having the new University established under Commonwealth law would enable it to invite other interstate regional institutions with complementary capabilities to integrate and build on their strengths to ensure continuing access to high quality education for rural and regional students around Australia.
“Commonwealth Government support is essential to provide the national legislative framework for the new institution and to negotiate with state governments.”
I have rarely seen so many current buzz words in a single announcement. This is a cleverly designed ploy to attract Federal Government support, and indeed it is very likely to, with the Feds funding the feasibility study.
The selection of the third institution will be very interesting indeed, because that will set the competitive dynamics of the merged body. My instinctive reaction was to think of the University of Southern Queensland, because this would then give a broad broadly geographically integrated sweep with potential reach into high population growth areas.
All very fascinating, if also a bit depressing.
Len Palmer, President of the NSW Branch of the National Tertiary Education Union, came in with a very interesting comment providing further information on the merger.
I have been meaning for a while to do an update on my various posts on change within the higher education sector, linking together the various things I have written. This may now be an appropriate time to attempt the task.