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Leaked email exposes uni merger drama


EXCLUSIVE | An explosive email from the man appointed to run Steven Marshall’s Department of Premier and Cabinet lays bare the tense and terse relations between the universities of Adelaide and South Australia before their merger talks collapsed.

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The two institutions announced in June that they were in talks about a possible merger  but the process collapsed in October, with University of SA vice-chancellor David Lloyd telling staff at the time there was “not a compelling case to support a merger of the two universities and that consequently, the process of exploring a merger should cease”.

The fraught and testy relations within and between the two universities in the lead-up to that decision are made explicit in an email sent by then-Uni SA chancellor Jim McDowell, who has since taken up his role as head of the Premier’s department.

In a seething missive sent to various high-level stakeholders in August, McDowell tees off over public comments made by Adelaide Uni vice-chancellor Peter Rathjen – which he warns will prompt “significant fall-out within my university”.

His email appears to be prompted by a report in The Australian newspaper after the two universities released a discussion paper calling for public submissions on the merger proposal.

In the article, Rathjen is quoted as declaring that a merged mega-uni would be able to invest $100 million a year into improving its research and teaching.

Both Rathjen and Lloyd told the paper the proposed merger was about “creating a larger institution”, rather than finding cost reductions.

It prompted a missive from McDowell entitled “Media Engagement”, in which he laments the public comments and warns that Rathjen’s off-message remarks referenced data that had not been “reviewed, validated or accepted by Uni SA”.

“It was agreed that our media focus for this week was intended solely to inform the public consultation process – providing as accurate information as possible and reiterating the fact that modelling of costs and benefits for a possible amalgamated institution is the focus of the next phase of our work, to inform the framing of future papers to our councils,” he wrote.

The article, he went on, “makes a public and attributed assertion around future investment in research in a merged university, derived from financial modelling which has not been carried out under the auspices of the current joint exploratory process”.

Nor, he notes, “has the data been reviewed, validated or accepted by UniSA”.

“I don’t believe this to be appropriate or constructive,” McDowell wrote.

It’s unclear to whom the email was addressed, but InDaily understands it was distributed to several recipients at both universities, including both vice-chancellors.

It appears to be directed at Rathjen in particular.

Neither university would comment today, while a DPC spokesman told InDaily: “Jim is not in a position to comment on matters relating to his former position as Chancellor.”

The email goes on to warn: “I expect significant fall-out from this within my university and our stakeholders and fear that it will be interpreted by many, if not the majority, that there is a modelled dataset and additional information extra to the discussion document which is purposely not being shared and that significant decisions (which in reality have not been even framed or countenanced) have already been made and an outcome determined.”

He signs off: “I would welcome any suggestions you have on how best to frame this congruently within the original intent of our process. Best regards.”

McDowell took up his role at DPC three weeks later.

He was also this week appointed to the board of Renewal SA.

The universities have been reluctant to elaborate on the reasons why the merger process fell apart, but in a speech to a Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency conference earlier this month, Lloyd reportedly rejected claims it was linked to personal jockeying for position, saying: “Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers.”

“It didn’t happen for a lot of reasons, all of them significant, and absolutely none of them linked to ego or position jockeying,” he said, according to The Australian.

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