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Speech: Adelaide University Bill

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (17:28): I rise also to speak on behalf of the Greens but not as the portfolio holder on this particular bill that seeks to create the Adelaide University. I note that in my colleague's absence I was one of the members of the joint house select committee that looked at this merger proposal and so bring that experience but certainly will not be going over some of the things that my colleague has already raised as a contribution.

I rise to oppose the Adelaide University Bill 2023. I do so not because I do not believe in our public institutions but because I do believe in our public institutions. I think public universities play an important role in a democracy, in a community, in a society. They bring critical thinking, they bring challenge and they are a very important part of the debate. I am concerned when I hear voices silenced in any political debate, and the voices that have been most silenced in this debate have been those of the students and the staff, the very people that will be needed to make any merger work.

As separate entities, these two universities, that of the University of South Australia currently and the University of Adelaide currently, both perform very well in serving quite different student demographics and needs. I note that I was in fact the very first undergraduate student representative on the University of South Australia's University Council, and so I bring that strong commitment to the democracy within the institutions to this debate today.

I have been horrified to see the erosion of staff and student voices in decision-making. I have been further horrified to see not only the Premier not read the business case, the minister not read the business case, but in this committee in a question that I asked, not only have we not had people read the business case, we were not even allowed to know, as members of the committee inquiring into this merger, who wrote the business case. I find that extraordinary. Was it Voldemort? Was it that consultancy that we dare not speak the name of?

This is an important question to have been answered. Sure, you can claim cabinet and commercial-in-confidence, but I note that the very speech that these members of the council here today have received as the second reading explanation for this bill actually has at the top in red and at the bottom in red on each and every page, 'Official: Sensitive//SA CABINET'. This is a cabinet document. We are allowed to have a cabinet document when it suits the government, but when it does not suit the government, and when it does not suit in this case these particular two institutions, we cannot even be told who wrote the business case, let alone be assured that the ministers responsible for making this decision, bringing this legislation to us, have read the business case and what it entails. I find it extraordinary.

Universities play a very important role in our community. I agree with the Malinauskas government on that. As it says in the second reading speech, 'They educate, research, bring diversity to the state and help meet the state's skills and workforce needs.' I totally agree. What is very concerning here, though, is that this government has gone on to blame the previous Marshall government in their second reading explanation, saying that while mergers have been talked about for years, and indeed decades, the key piece missing in 2018 was 'interest and investment from the government of the day'.

I think here, though, where the Malinauskas government has chosen, in their own words, to be active rather than passive in these conversations is that they have led this debate with the hierarchy of the two institutions that we will now see merge. Yet we know that the Malinauskas government, and the then Malinauskas Labor opposition, in the election process promised an independent commission of inquiry—not a parliamentary committee, as the Greens forced the hand of the government on, not a reading of a business case or a lack of reading of a business case, but an independent commission of inquiry. Had we had that piece of work done, the Greens would have a lot more confidence in this piece of legislation before us actually working in the long term.

My advice is, while we are hearing from the Malinauskas government that a commission of inquiry is their first broken election promise—of apparently no broken election promises being their promise—this will all start in 2026, a few short years away, well timed for the March 2026 election, or perhaps poorly timed, depending on where things stand in those months leading to the next state election. Certainly, my advice from expert sources is that it takes a good 10 years for a merger like this to settle and to be done properly.

So I have grave concerns about the rushed nature, the broken election promise and the lack of information provided not just to the parliament but to the community of South Australia about whether or not this really is a well-founded and appropriate way forward that will serve our students, our staff, our researchers and the state of South Australia.

I am concerned, and I share the concerns of the vice-chancellor of Flinders University, when he raised his concerns about being done out of the deal not because he thought that would be necessarily a problem for Flinders University—and, I have to say, I feel Flinders will be the big winners out of this merger—but the approach to create a research fund not able to be accessed by Flinders is quite concerning. Surely that fund should be statewide, surely it should not be picking winners, and surely it should not be giving an incentive for those researchers to leave Flinders in pursuit of those additional funds.

If this state parliament is to allocate funds like that for research, it should be for all of our public institutions, noting that we do, indeed, have private universities that operate within our state borders, but I am not talking about those today. I am talking about our public institutions that we have a long and proud history of.

I note that there have been many attempts over many years to create mergers. I have been part of a merger. As I said, I was the first undergraduate student rep at the then new University of South Australia. I was there when we debated the name. It was not always going to be called University of South Australia. Spence university was in fact my pick and certainly a reflection of the proud history of women's education that particularly the old colleges of advanced education—

There being a disturbance:

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS: Thanks, Siri. I have broken an arm and got Siri helping me with my assignment here. I digress. Spence university would have been my preferred name for that university, but it came on to be the institution that we now know and love as the University of South Australia. It plays a particular role, it has a particular vocational workforce and social good reason for being, and, yes, it is not as historically imbued with research as the University of Adelaide is, but it actually has better rankings for student satisfaction.

In many cases, that is because, while it is a larger institution, it is on smaller campuses and the quality of the student experience, in some cases, has been better. The University of Adelaide, as it is currently called—although, I note in the legislation before us, we will be, from here on in, calling the two merged institutions Adelaide University—also has a fine reputation in the areas that it has historically thrived in, but it has a different focus than the University of South Australia. It has a different culture. I am concerned, having seen the Dawkins era mergers, that this, what has been called a bit of a shotgun wedding, may well not produce the good results that we saw with the creation of the University of South Australia. Again, perhaps Flinders University will be the big winner.

On a personal note, I was at Salisbury campus. The Hon. Frank Pangallo mentioned the multifunctionpolis and those ideas of the past. I was at the Salisbury campus of the University of South Australia when I did an assignment on the MFP. The MFP does not exist and Salisbury campus certainly does not exist. That was not on the cards when we merged. It was a campus that served the working-class community of the northern suburbs.

I note here in the history that the then Premier, Mike Rann, has been a champion of merged universities, but I have to say he got involved in that because that was not what he had foreseen. The closure of the Salisbury campus was something that he got himself involved in the politics of and attempted to thwart, but even then Premier Mike Rann could not stop those decisions of the then University of South Australia to shut down that campus and to erode access to higher education for lower SES students.

That is the way of the future to enhance access to education. Those people were the first and often the only one in their families to attend a university, did not have the culture of a family who understood what that would entail and, as they went through that university, they found it increasingly difficult to get right through the degree as student tuition support was eroded—again, during the Hawke and Dawkins era.

Again, I raise some concerns about the way this scholarship approach will be applied. There is a lot of talk that this will be good for lower SES students. I fully agree and echo the sentiments, and the Greens strongly believe, that it should be your aptitude, not your access to wealth, that ensures that you have an academic future and that you can get through a degree and into further degrees. We know that the culture of universities, particularly for those students who are bright enough to get in, means that the hard slog of holding down one, two or maybe more jobs because they do not have access to wealth, and then hit the hurdle of doing placements that are unpaid, where they cannot even hold down those jobs, means they are more likely to drop out as we go along.

I heard very little in my time on the joint committee looking into this merger about the plight of those students. Sure, we might have a new scholarship fund that is going to get people into university, but is it going to keep them there? When we have a cost-of-living crisis, and we know that these students need extra support, with the cultures of these universities—and if we inherit a culture of a university that typically has had more students with access to wealth rather than fewer students with access to wealth—we may well see worse outcomes for lower SES students in the long term.

I do caution members to not necessarily think that that pot of money will be the be-all and end-all. How it is spent and how it supports those students not just to get in but to stay and to have the time to be successful at university will be incredibly important and will be one of the things the Malinauskas government will be judged upon.

I thank the NTEU for its hard work and contribution to this. For those members of this parliament who have not read the surveys done by NTEU, they are a cautionary tale here: 66 per cent of respondents to the NTEU survey in regard to the conversation around this merger did not trust university councils to make good decisions for staff, students, alumni and the public; 91 per cent and 88 per cent considered transparency of information and stakeholder engagement important to ensure public interests are served; and 86 per cent considered detailed public analysis of the pros and cons of the merger important to ensure public interests are served. Only 30 per cent and 26 per cent were confident that the governance structure of any new university would serve the public interest or engage in transparent processes.

These are people at the coalface. This is their careers, this is their lives, this is their working environment. They do not have trust in this process as it currently stands, and in this piece of legislation before us they are not given additional transparency. They are not afforded what should be the face of the universities of the future, with more of a say at the table, more information. In fact, they have been told by the Malinauskas government that they should get used to being shut out of decisions and that they cannot even see the minutes of the university council meetings, let alone the agendas, and should just get used to that as well.

That will not make for a productive workplace, it will not attract people to stay here in this institution, and it is a big lost opportunity, given that we have some really welcome work being done by Minister Clare at a federal level, seeking to reshape our public institutions, our public universities, to be there for the public good, to have more transparency rather than less, and to have more staff and student engagement at the highest levels rather than less. In fact, we are going the wrong way with this legislation on that.

I cannot believe the Labor government will not support more staff involvement in these decisions and more transparency around the transition process as we go forward if they want this merger to work in such a short time frame.

The Hon. R.A. Simms: It's outrageous.

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS: It is not outrageous necessarily, it is ill-thought-out because if you want this merger to work you will engage and work with the people you need to make it work. Even if you were just looking at this as a political venture, surely you would want those people you are going to have to rely on to be happy with the process to be happy with the process. You are setting yourselves up to fail by shutting out staff and students. I urge the Labor government to reconsider their current opposition to those amendments around better governance that is more inclusive and more reflective of this being a public institution.

I note that the Hon. Sarah Game spoke glowingly of her time on the committee. I did not have such a fine time as the Hon. Sarah Game did on the committee. I found myself shut down and shut up by Labor members, spoken over many a time, and I found that quite offensive. It was actually one of the worst committee experiences I have had in my time in this parliament. I ask Labor to consider and reflect upon—it was not members of this council because I think members of this council understand the role of a crossbench and our right to be here, but I found members of the other place not willing to allow me to ask questions of witnesses and shutting me down in a way that certainly was not reflective of good committee practice and process and possible progress on this.

I note that the Hon. Sarah Game welcomed the new University of Adelaide. I remind the Hon. Sarah Game that it is actually called the Adelaide University from here on in once we merge it, so I am not really confident that she was aware of what was going on in the committee if she does not even know the name of the new institution that she was inquiring into.

With that, I do look forward to the committee stage because I will be interested to hear some of the answers. I urge Labor members to reflect on their practices in regard to industrial democracy and the very reason that the Labor Party was created to ensure better industrial democracy, to reflect on the work of their federal minister, Minister Clare, and to see this as an opportunity for a better university of the future not one where we are destined to keep making the same mistakes that we currently are.

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