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The “Super University” where bigger might be better

By Peter Swannell - posted Wednesday, 13 July 2005

A “super university” for Perth is on the cards. Are amalgamations the name of the survival game or are there other solutions?

Millicent Poole is the very successful vice-chancellor of Edith Cowan University. She’s also a cunning old fox. She made front-page news recently with her proposition that there should be a “super university” created in Perth by the amalgamation of three of that city’s universities, her own, Curtin University and Murdoch University.

It’s not clear whether her fellow vice-chancellors at the other potential partner establishments knew as much about her proposal as she does. I would be surprised if they did, because cunning old foxes don’t work that way. What they all do know is that amalgamations have been on the cards for years, and with new intensity, as all universities struggle for “market share” in Nelson’s higher education world.


It’s a world where competition for resources, students, pecking order supremacy and political correctness are seen as signposts to success. And Blind Freddy could see that a city the size of Perth, with four universities, including the research dominant and very laudable University of Western Australia, is ripe for squeezing when it comes to political pressure. Millie has always been able to handle the kPas (the pressure) as well as the KPIs (the key performance indicators) when the heat is on.

Curtin and Murdoch, as different to the outsider as chalk and cheese, were not to be given a trouble-free courtship by leaving ECU on the shelf. If two can tango then a ménage a trois must surely be at least 50 per cent bigger and better, or so we must presume. And maybe Millie’s right. She’s not always been right but she’s had her fair share of wins over a long career. It’s a very attractive proposition at least from this side of the continent.

The really important questions are:

  1. Does a modern university necessarily have to be big in order to survive?
  2. If so, is that based on political and funding necessities, or upon teaching and research effectiveness?
  3. What about “the regionals” where upsizing would inevitably mean organisational amalgamation with geographically remote country cousins or predatory metropolitan "Big Brothers"?
  4. Is there a viable alternative strategy that is not predicated on the basis that you can only be “better” by getting bigger? The inverted commas are there because it’s easier to define “bigger” than to define “better”, especially when you are talking about effective, challenging, life-enhancing university education.

If you are considering going to university, or if you are a parent worrying about whether you are going to get value for the money you will shell out, or if like many of us you just care about the quality of our universities, the answers to these questions are very important.

If the answer to question 4 is an unequivocal “No”, that universities can only get better by getting bigger, then you hardly need to read on. We can all sit back, leave it to a few of our metropolitan mates and watch the system fall apart. So why might the answer be “No”?


Professor Poole makes the point that a university must have a “critical mass” in order to attract sufficient funds, sufficient students and, presumably ipso facto, sufficient market share. In the present policy and funding environment she could be right, although there is vagueness about what she thinks is “sufficient”.

Despite the undeniable need for sufficient resources, irrespective of size, there is very little believable evidence that “bigger” means “better teaching”, more effective administration, better niche research, or a better learning experience. Nonetheless, polices that drain resources (for example in research funding) from many in order better to feed the few, and policies that are demonstrated as “successful” by achieving KPIs that are unduly skewed towards “bigger is better” from the outset, make a “No” answer to question 4 comfortingly plausible.

Let’s be clear about those KPIs. All the good QA (quality assurance) people, including AUQA (the Australian Universities Quality Agency) will tell you that it’s each university itself that decides what KPIs it thinks are important … so don’t blame anybody else. Well, so be it, but good KPI outcomes won’t earn you a cracker of resource or prestige if the KPIs you value are not high in the priority list of the Canberra policy gurus.

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First published in the July edition of Hugh and I, an online monthly news, reviews and commentary for Toowoomba and the Darling Downs.

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About the Author

Professor Peter Swannell is the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Southern Queensland. He retired from this position in 2004. He writes for the Swannell File at Hugh and I, an online news service based in Toowoomba.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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