Documents obtained by the ABC shed new light on secret but failed negotiations to merge South Australia’s two largest universities, showing top officials disagreed over what to name the institution and how to choose its leaders.

Key points:

  • The University of Adelaide and UniSA refused to go into detail when their merger talks failed in 2018
  • Leadership and a name for the merged institution were key sticking points, documents show
  • Proponents had argued a merger could be of economic and social benefit to the state

The proposal to amalgamate the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia (UniSA) was announced amid public fanfare in June 2018, but fell through without detailed explanation just months later.

“Ultimately, our universities were unable to reach agreement on the threshold issues and strategic risks,” the universities said in a joint statement at the time.

Supporters had argued a merger would be of “economic, social and cultural” benefit to the state — but critics warned of the potential for job cuts and a reduction in courses.

Now, the ABC has obtained dozens of private emails and text messages, exchanged by top University of Adelaide officials.

The university released the documents under Freedom of Information (FOI) laws, following a ruling by the SA Ombudsman.

They show the question of what to name the merged institution — including where to place the word “Adelaide” in the title — was a key issue in the months before negotiations finally failed in October 2018.

UniSA’s City West campus is opposite the University of Adelaide medical building.(ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

Much of the correspondence is redacted to protect commercial interests, so some of the reasons the talks failed may never become public.

Long-time merger advocate and former University of Adelaide Council member Chris Schacht said he believed “the only reason it didn’t happen is that … [they] could not agree which one of their vice-chancellors would become the vice-chancellor of the new institution”.

The documents do not prove whether leadership was the decisive issue that caused the talks to fail.

But they offer the clearest public account of the issues that threatened the deal and show top officials disagreed on it just days before negotiations collapsed.

What’s in a name?

On September 25, 2018 — three months into the talks and one month before they failed — University of Adelaide chief operating officer Bruce Lines and then-chancellor Kevin Scarce exchanged a series of text messages.

The universities had by then discussed what to name a merged university.

Bruce Lines: Kevin, did you agree “University of Adelaide, South Australia” or “Adelaide University of South Australia”. You mentioned the former. David referred to the latter. Both seem acceptable to me.

Kevin Scarce: Bruce my recollection was definitely University of Adelaide, South Australia. In terms of search engine is there a difference? Prefer to stick with what was agreed at the meeting.

Bruce Lines: Not sure, but I’ll look into it.

Kevin Scarce: Bruce, in terms of the branding exercise, let’s make sure this process is not designed to deliver another outcome.

Bruce Lines: Understood.

Mr Scarce’s then-deputy Catherine Branson texted him that afternoon, clarifying that the parties had in fact agreed to “Adelaide University of South Australia — AUSA”.

The following day, Mr Lines wrote to Mr Scarce with a draft email to be sent to University of Adelaide Council members, warning of an “apparent impasse reached with the University of South Australia Council on the critical threshold issues”.

Then-chancellor and former governor Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce was a key player in the merger negotiations.(University of Adelaide)

On September 27, Mr Lines emailed a dozen senior University of Adelaide colleagues to say there was “now in-principle agreement on a name for the new university and on a process for appointing leadership — at least at a high level”.

In a separate email, Ms Branson suggested the two universities jointly commission legal advice on the subject of leadership.

She argued negotiations over choosing a vice-chancellor for the new university could go no further until the merger deal was effectively done.

“My present view is that it is virtually impossible for us to take the issue of the selection of the [vice-chancellor] without their (sic) being in existence an entity capable of entering into an employment contract,” she wrote.

Former minister wanted to ‘make a deal’

One week later, former SA Labor minister John Hill — a UniSA Council member — emailed Mr Scarce offering to “see if we can ‘make a deal’ — which we can put to our respective sides”.

The reply to that email is fully redacted.

On the afternoon of Monday, October 15, UniSA Chancellor Pauline Carr emailed her then-University of Adelaide counterpart.

Pauline Carr was appointed chancellor of UniSA in August 2018, two months into the merger negotiations.(University of South Australia)

She asked Mr Scarce for changes to the agenda for an upcoming meeting between the two universities.

Mr Scarce responded by saying that Adelaide agreed there was “the need to discuss leadership issues … which is best achieved at the end of the meeting without the VCs [vice-chancellors]”.

His email reveals that at this late stage — seven days before negotiations failed — the universities were still not agreed on the subject of leadership.

Extract from Mr Scarce’s email to UniSA chancellor Pauline Carr in 2018.(Supplied)

The following Monday, both university councils met separately to consider the fate of the merger.

Correspondence from Mr Scarce states it was UniSA that killed the talks.

That evening, he emailed the University of Adelaide’s external relations chief Inga Davis, with instructions on how to communicate with staff and students about the collapsed negotiations.

But in an email to University of Adelaide colleagues the following morning, Mr Scarce committed to keeping detailed reasons secret.

“Having acted in good faith throughout these negotiations, I intend to honour a working level agreement not to publically (sic) disclose detailed reasons why our merger discussions have concluded,” he said.

Mr Scarce said Adelaide University would honour an agreement to keep detailed reasons for the failed merger talks secret.(ABC News: Dean Faulkner)

Nonetheless, he wrote that UniSA had “elected not to proceed with discussions”.

By this stage, 24 hours after the crucial university council meetings, he wrote that he remained unaware as to why UniSA ended the negotiations.

Mr Scarce declined to comment for this story, but a spokesperson for the University of Adelaide said the merger “came to an end” when the UniSA Council “decided not to proceed further”.

But the spokesperson added that the university remained open to the possibility of a future merger.

“So far as leadership is concerned, the University of Adelaide’s position was that there should be a competitive process for the selection of the leader of a merged university, should that merger occur,” the spokesperson said.

“As our chancellor has previously said, the University of Adelaide remains open to considering the possibility of merger with one of its two sister institutions in the state, or to some other form of rationalisation of our state’s higher education sector.”

‘Swimming back to bite you’

In a statement to ABC News, UniSA vice-chancellor David Lloyd said the name and leadership issues were given “no greater weight than our consideration of the overall business case”.

“UniSA proposed a transparent, competitive mechanism to identify appropriate leadership as we believed this was clearly a key consideration for the future success of any proposed merged institution.

“My position on the merits of merger is a matter of public record.”

In a blog post published in August last year, Professor Lloyd considered both sides of the merger debate — and invoked the film Jaws.

“Mergers, it seems, are a bit like sharks, when you least expect it, they come swimming back to bite you,” he wrote on the university’s website.

He wrote that he “would welcome an opportunity to explore” future mergers, but that the the business case did not “stack up” in 2018.

Days after Professor Lloyd’s blog post, Catherine Branson — who replaced Mr Scarce as University of Adelaide chancellor earlier this year — reportedly said there was “possible merit” in reviving the merger talks.

Chancellor Catherine Branson has reportedly said there may be merit in reviving merger talks.(Supplied: University of Adelaide)

Mr Scarce stepped down in May of this year, six months before the end of his tenure and less than 24 hours before then-vice-chancellor Peter Rathjen did the same.

It was later revealed Professor Rathjen had been under investigation by the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption (ICAC) over alleged sexual harassment, which the ICAC later found he had committed.

Last month, the SA Labor Opposition promised to establish a commission on merging all three of the state’s major universities, including Flinders University, if it wins the 2022 election.

Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas stopped short of suggesting a Labor government would force a merger on the universities, but blamed Liberal Premier Steven Marshall’s “lack of leadership” for the failure of past merger discussions.

But Premier Marshall dismissed the policy announcement, saying universities were “more than capable of sitting down and discussing mergers themselves”.

John Hill declined to comment for this story. ABC News also approached Bruce Lines, Catherine Branson and Pauline Carr for comment.