Opinion Expanding Australian universities face staffing challenges

The demand-driven system means universities are being pushed through seldom-discussed tipping points, writes Merlin Crossley.


Photo: Quentin Jones

OPINION: The demand-driven system is providing opportunities for many young Australians but it is also pushing universities through a number of interesting, predictable but seldom discussed tipping points.

The first and most obvious effect has been that as student numbers have increased, so have academic staff numbers, albeit at a slightly slower rate as managers have squeezed out efficiencies. Nevertheless, the increase in academics is now affecting the annual contest for research grants.

More academics are competing for a pool of research funds that has not expanded quickly enough. In some disciplines the competition has become extreme and it is simply not possible for all aspiring academics to follow a teaching and research career path. Consequently, “education focused” positions have been introduced in many institutions.

The career prospects for such staff will increase as teaching changes, and as a teacher’s electronic footprint provides new ways of demonstrating proficiency, innovation and the scale of one’s contribution to teaching. As credibility increases for league tables that rank universities on the basis of what they do for students — rather than on their prowess in international research — it is possible that a poaching market for top teachers will emerge.

This may push up the salary costs at universities. The costs of providing high-quality electronic teaching will add to the problem.

When research costs blew out, universities sought to capture economies of scale by recruiting ever more students, and the same strategy will be used in an effort to meet teaching costs. Universities will welcome more international students as the middle class in Asia and beyond continues to expand. Already full campuses will start overflowing. To cope with this, many universities will expand their academic year (or have done so already) and others will offer more online degrees. Staff previously employed on sessional contracts may soon have opportunities to contribute across the year either on campus or online. The education side of our industry will provide new opportunities for both students and staff.

The remarkable expansion of student numbers, campuses and the workforce, as well as the proliferation of degrees designed to attract ever more students, has meant that university management has grown too. The balance between professional management and collegiate academic aspirations is seldom comfortable but with universities expanding into billion dollar enterprises, with multiple campuses, sometimes in different countries, it is hardly surprising that business-minded professionals increasingly influence university boardrooms. This situation is unlikely to be reversed.

The demand-driven system will have other big consequences. Some estimates suggest that about half of all school leavers are now going straight into university, and around a quarter on to vocational training. As the numbers of school leavers progressing successfully to further education increases, the pool of people missing out shrinks. In the future the number of ‘mature age students’ who return to take a bachelors degree may end up being relatively small. This will be challenging for institutions that pride themselves on providing opportunities for mature students lacking prior chances to secure an education.

In an effort to find new markets, it is likely that relatively low-cost degrees, such as 12 or 18-month diplomas, will expand, and while these may serve as stepping stones to further study or employment, they may also distract some students from vocational pathways. It is likely that the government will continue to contribute to ensuring educational opportunities for all, but the burden of supporting so many students, as well as increasingly sophisticated research, has made it hard for successive ministers, who have not always succeeded in explaining the overriding importance of this enterprise.

It has also been hard for universities to provide scholarships to support all those students who need help to access education. Consequently, even when universities are providing more scholarships than before, the proportion of students supported can seem very small. So top universities across the world still look like bastions of elitism, driven by elite philosophies, even when they are trying hard to be progressive.

The costs of education are continually increasing and just as we glimpse the goal of universal educational achievement on the horizon, with bachelors degrees being in reach of many who aspire to them, a new differentiator is emerging, and those seeking competitive advantage will increasingly aspire to a masters qualification.

The government has consistently shown itself unwilling to fund postgraduate education for all. Will postgraduate degrees be the next refuge of the wealthy?

We are probably close to a situation where those who believed that universal education would quickly resolve problems of social inequality and would drive social mobility may be questioning the way forward. But while the systems have changed, the fundamental advantage of knowledge over ignorance remains intact. Universal education won’t solve the problem of inequality but education provides opportunities for citizens to explore, find and develop their own strengths.

Embracing education as a foundational exercise in life drives us to question ourselves and understand each other.

As education spreads throughout the world the shared experiences and mission will help unite humanity.

Professor Merlin Crossley is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education) at UNSW.

This opinion piece was first published in The Australian.