Uncapped university offers will stretch teaching staff to the limit

Campus life is going to get more crowded in coming years. Flickr/University of Saskatchewan

A 4% increase in the latest round of offers at Australian universities will place overstretched teaching staff under more strain and lower the quality of education for ballooning student ranks, the higher education union warned today.

The latest figures show that in the wake of the Federal Government’s move to uncap places from this year, the number of offers has risen to 220,000. Under the new “demand-driven system”, universities will receive funding for as many students as they can enrol. Previously, the government regulated the number of places.

The government will retain the power to reimpose caps should too many students enrol in particular courses.

The National Tertiary Education Union said it welcomed the opportunity for more students to go to university, but remained sceptical about the experience they would have on arrival.

“We don’t have confidence that universities will suddenly start employing more staff to handle this increase, because we don’t have any evidence that that has been their approach to dealing with the increase in student enrolments now or previously,” said Jeannie Rea, National President of the National Tertiary Education Union.

“Rather, they’ve just largely employed casual staff to undertake much of the academic teaching, so now in some places you’re looking at half or even more of the teaching of students being done by people who are paid by the hour.”

In 2009 and 2010, universities enrolled an additional 50,000 undergraduate students in anticipation of the shift to the uncapped system. The Group of Eight universities warned that the surge could quickly become financially unsustainable.

Earlier, the Minister for Tertiary Education, Chris Evans, had warned that the demand-driven system would punish universities that allowed the quality of teaching to suffer.

Today, he described the latest rise in offers as “a tremendous result … . By removing the restrictions on the number of places available, the Gillard Government’s reforms have opened the doors of universities to more students than ever before.

"This data proves we are well and truly on track to achieving the target of 40 per cent of Australians aged between 25 and 34 to have achieved a bachelor degree by 2020.”

Skills Australia has forecast that by 2025 a third of all jobs will require a minimum of a bachelor degree qualification.

Professor Simon Marginson, from the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne, said that the 4% increase in places was “healthy … but not an outstanding rate of growth.” It had been pre-empted to some extent by bigger increases in the previous two years.

The funding rate for places - comprised of a student contribution and a government subsidy per student, both of which are capped - was below average course costs in at least half the student places. “This inhibits growth in many institutions,” Professor Marginson said. Most of the Group of Eight universities had resisted growth in the past two years.

The rise in enrolments has occurred mainly across campuses in Victoria. It has been driven, in particular, by a rise in the number of students taking engineering and science courses.

The trend suggested that universities were responding well to demand by location and field of study, said Dr Gavin Moodie, principal policy advisor at RMIT University.

“Some universities have increased their offers by lowering cut off scores,” Dr Moodie said. “The effect of lower entry scores on student attainment, retention and completion depends heavily on the amount and type of support universities give students, particularly in first year.

"Lower entry scores shouldn’t lower quality and completion if universities provide additional teaching and other support to students by staff with a strong commitment and expertise in teaching and student support.” He added that universities had enough funding “to employ enough continuing [full-time or part-time] academic staff to maintain teaching quality for their increased students”.

But Ken McAlpine, a senior industrial officer at the NTEU, said the number of casual staff at universities had been increasing at a faster pace than full-time and part-time teachers. The most recent figures from the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations show that the number of casual staff employed for teaching and research at universities increased by 7.9% from 2008 to 2009, and 6.1% from 2009 to 2010. Full-time and part-time teachers increased by 4.2% and 2.9%.

If the Government felt that the rise in enrolments was placing too much pressure on its outlays, then it should increase HECS rates to boost its revenue, Dr Moodie said.

“Recent application figures for England have held up despite a near tripling of fees to £9,000, so it seems that there is scope for increasing HECS more without reducing access.”

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