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Opening statement from Vicki Thomson to the Parliament of South Australia’s Joint Committee on the Establishment of Adelaide University Public Hearing

September 4, 2023

Thank you for the invitation to appear before this important committee.

I will make a short opening statement that will set out clearly the Go8’s position, and I am of course happy to take questions.

As Chief Executive of the Group of Eight, I am here today representing the views of the Go8 Board.

The University of Adelaide is a proud founding member of the Go8 – and like all Go8 members is a top 100 university and a world leader in research and innovation.

By way of context, the Go8 comprises Australia’s eight leading research -intensive universities.

We undertake 70 per cent of Australia’s university -based research and invest $7.7 billion toward that research effort. Our expenditure on research is five times higher than CSIRO’s total expenditure and we receive over half of all business investment in higher education research.

We have an enviable international reputation with six of our members in the world’s top 50 universities and all eight in the top 100.

These are facts which attract global attention – from prospective students, from researchers looking to collaborate and from industries seeking partnerships.

By these measures and many others, Go8 members are the top eight research-intensive universities in Australia, collectively educating 450,000 students, graduating over 120,000 graduates annually including the majority of Australia’s doctors, half of Australia’s PhD graduates, 55 per cent of Australia’s science graduates and over 40 per cent of engineering graduates.

All of the above goes to the core of this merger process.

It is important for me to stress that the Go8 board has no position on whether the two universities should merge.

That is not for us to lobby for, nor to decide upon.

But I can say, given I was requested to appear here today, that we do strongly perceive their reasons for doing so, as sound reasons – both for themselves, their students, and the national and South Australian economy moving forward.

The Go8 Board has also concluded that the merged university would maintain a Go8 level of research intensity and excellence, and on that basis we wrote to the South Australian Premier in March this year indicating that should the two universities merge, it would be offered membership of the Group of Eight.

Vitally, this is because a merger of two such soundly managed universities would create scale, and importantly quality at scale.

South Australia truly has turned the corner from those post State Bank collapse days of rustbelt to brain belt – with a focus on new industries including defence, advanced manufacturing, med tech to name a few.   

South Australia is and will be the epicentre of the nation’s defence push with a strong role to play in delivering on AUKUS Pillar 2.

That simply can’t happen without a powerhouse research and education presence and a merger has the potential to build on the existing strengths of the two universities.

It would ensure greater opportunities for our young people and for the existing workforce to up skill and also ensure that South Australia is well-placed to attract the absolute best when it comes to research and researchers as well as international students. And why is that important?

We know that research has a direct impact on economies and in South Australia – The University of Adelaide’s research and commercialisation activities in 2020 added almost $2.3 billion to the economy as part of an overall economic impact of over $4.7 billion by the university.

We also know that it is the Go8 which attracts the highest quality of international students and staff. We attract one in three  international students who chose to study higher education in Australia and more than half  of these  are studying a post graduate or research course. There’s your brain gain.

A merger will create a university of comparable size to others interstate and overseas – better able to attract support and investment from government and industry.

This would be the first big merger since the Dawkins reforms and the first of this scale.  WA which has five universities has started the process –  scale makes a difference in Australia’s current funding environment.

Some have put the argument – bigger isn’t always better – however in our system scale does matter – unlike Yale, Princeton and Harvard for example – our universities don’t have access to “50,000 people donating a million dollars each” to their alma mater.

I am fully aware that the innards of education policy and funding are dry reading for most people.

However, it matters significantly as it relates to this merger proposal- because successive Federal Governments have not funded university research as it logically should be.

Australia has a distorted funding model when it comes to research funding. 

Today in Australia, in 2023, the only way to achieve a successful leading research-intensive university is through scale.

We can all argue this should not be the situation we find ourselves in.

But it is simply fact.

Consider the data point I referred to earlier – the Go8 investing $7.7 billion annually into research.  Commonwealth funding makes up about $3.7 billion of that figure. The remaining $4 billion comes from cross subsidisation – largely from international student fee income.

Investment in R&D is in free fall.

Business and Government investment in research is unchanged over the last decade while higher education research spending has increased by 43%.

Virtually all of the increase in the national total expenditure on research over the last decade has come from increased university expenditure -and that has mainly been driven by the Go8 universities.

We are picking up the slack – using international student fee revenue. This is not sustainable.

Frankly as every Go8 Vice Chancellor will tell you, it is remarkable that without having scale, the University of Adelaide has done so well, achieved so much.

I know some members of the committee may want to point to our smaller Go8 member – ANU. 

Yes indeed it is without scale, but it receives significant additional Commonwealth funding that other Go8 members do not have access to.

It is here I would like to address the ongoing University Accord process.

I am aware of some views that any merger process should wait until the Accord process is completed.

The answer we have to that view is direct:  why and to what end?

The Universities Accord process has drawn a line in the sand when it comes to participation, access and equity – as it should. It has quite rightly identified key areas for reform as it relates to growing the numbers of students from all  backgrounds –  as it should.

The Accord Interim report has been somewhat disappointing as it relates to research, its funding and its spread across the sector.

It hasn’t substantively addressed the core underlying problem in our higher education sector  – that is the distorted funding model we have in this nation whereby the national university research effort is underwritten by international fee income.

There are no bold policy changes around research funding.

We desperately require research funded in a way that the nation and the community can benefit as is deserved.

It hasn’t provided an opportunity for real systemic reform – the kind of reform we are discussing today.

It is not going to change tack at this stage.

Bold higher education policy has not been seen in Australia, since such policy gave you the then new University of South Australia from the amalgamation of SA’s colleges of education and the Institute of Technology.

In the meantime………………..

What you have are two universities of excellence, and a State Government deciding to carve out their own bold measures  – and find a way through that policy impasse to deliver research brilliance for you. SA is a fortunate state.