Deloitte selected as consulting partner for university mega-merger

17 October 2023 4 min. read

Deloitte has been selected to support the largest ever university merger in history.

The consulting arm of professional services firm Deloitte has been appointed as an integration and transformation partner for the merger between the University of Adelaide and University of South Australia, which is claimed to be the largest ever such education sector tie-up anywhere in the world.

However, the contract has raised potential conflict of interest concerns over Deloitte Asia Pacific chief David Hill’s close ties to Adelaide University, where he was a member of the governing council until August.

Deloitte selected as consulting partner for university mega-merger

Yet, both the consulting firm and the university were quick to defend what they described as a rigorous procurement process, which took place over the space of three months and is reported to have cost millions.

University of South Australia vice-chancellor David Lloyd has also since stated during a parliamentary hearing that the jointly-made Deloitte appointment was carried out by university management in a process “completely independent” of the both governing councils.

A member of the Adelaide University council since 2014, Hill voted to support the merger in the month prior to his departure according to the minutes of a meeting obtained by local online news outlet InDaily. In response to questions put forward by the publication, a Deloitte spokesperson said that, “The selection and appointment process followed a rigorous process based on the highest probity standards supported by an external procurement specialist and independent probity advisory firm.”

The spokesperson continued, “The suggestion that David Hill’s position on the University of Adelaide Council and as Deloitte Asia Pacific CEO created a conflict of interest in relation to the appointment is wrong and misinformed. Hill had no involvement with the evaluation of proposals or the decision to appoint Deloitte. (He) was not involved with Deloitte’s proposal and will not have any involvement with the work to be completed by Deloitte.”

Hill isn’t the only link the consultancy has with Adelaide University though, with Deloitte having established a tech-focused academy in partnership with the university at the end of 2021, which included the opportunity for up to 200 paid internships per year for both undergraduate and post-grad students. Incidentally, the firm is due to relocate to its new Festival Tower offices from next year, alongside Flinders, which declined the merger opportunity.

Meanwhile, rival professional services firm Accenture has a similar deal set up with the University of South Australia, to provide digital skills and innovation training to students, and has faced its own questions as to its supposed consulting gig on a feasibility study for the merger. The question of the business case for the merger has also been a contentious one, with the parties involved consistently refusing to reveal any details, citing commercial confidentiality.

A joint statement from the universities read: “The approach to establishing a new university for South Australia has been complex and involved assessing legislative options, consumer and competition legislation, Commonwealth regulation, and higher education accreditation. Progressing the transition to Adelaide University is a significant undertaking and will involve the ongoing engagement of specialist firms, including the local offices of national firms.”

Integration Management Office

It was also revealed that Deloitte beat out a dozen other rivals to secure the prestigious consulting contract, with senior staff set to work out of Adelaide University’s offices as part of its Integration Management Office.

The merged institution is set to be up and running by the start of 2026, and backed by an almost $450 million commitment from the South Australian government to serve 70,000 students within a decade, but the deal still needs to pass the state’s upper house.

While Hill completed his MBA from Adelaide University, and was appointed a deputy chancellor in 2020, South Australian Greens senator Barbara Pocock – effectively the chief prosecutor in the current federal inquiry into the local consulting industry – is also an alumnus, completing her economics doctorate at Adelaide University and spending close to three decades as an academic.

“These are two very important universities with many strengths, which together could be greater than the sum of their parts,” Pocock stated of the merger. “But the council must include representative and strong voices from students, staff and the community. I will be very disappointed if social sciences and humanities weren’t strengthened out of a merger like this and I hope that staff can enter into this without fear that it is associated with some kind of cost-cutting mechanism.”