AUSTRALIA: Universities face staffing crisis

An ageing workforce, low satisfaction levels among academics and rapid rises in student numbers are confronting universities with a staffing crisis, a new study has found. A report released on Friday at the LH Martin Institute for Higher Education's international conference in Melbourne says Australian higher education is in danger of losing the best and brightest young academics to the private sector or to other nations.

The 36-page report says that over the next five years, almost one in four senior academics will retire and a further 23% will follow in the subsequent five-year period - amounting to a loss of some 5,000 academic leaders across Australia. It says the current number of young academics is unlikely to be sufficient to replace this loss.

This is not the first study to highlight the greying of Australian academe and the serious problems this presents. Universities and governments have been warned many times in recent years of the looming crisis but this latest report is based on the largest and most extensive survey of academic staff yet conducted and provides an up-to-the-minute picture of the current situation.

It also compares the characteristics of Australian academics and their work with those of their counterparts in 24 other countries. Staff from 20 universities participated in a Changing Academic Profession survey and this provided the data for the report. It reveals the unhappy attitudes of many academics to their work while identifying key problem areas.

The report's six authors are from the institute, the Education Policy Institute and the Australian Council for Educational Research.

"From a review of the evidence, we argue that now is the time for both policy action at the national and institutional level to address these problems, and for further research that can inform workforce planning and development in the years to come," they write.

The study reveals that Australian scholars are less satisfied with their work than their international colleagues and are more likely to change jobs. Australian academics have one of the lowest levels of satisfaction with university management and support, are slightly below the international average in terms of the extent of fixed-term contracts, and work among the longest hours.

The report says the looming shortage of academic staff has been compounded by a 107% increase in student numbers between 1989 and 2007, compared with a 28% rise in staff numbers in the same period.

It says the federal government's ambitious target to have 40% of Australia's 25 to 34-year-olds holding bachelor degrees is likely to further stress the "already compromised" staff-student ratios.

Among the key findings:

* The clear, present and growing demand for academic staff is being propelled by system growth, looming retirements, and increased international mobility.
* The hitherto largely 'casual' response to this demand lacks coherence, strength and vision.
* The settings are not right for engaging and replenishing Australia's academic workforce.
* Australian academics are less satisfied with their work than international colleagues and possibly other professionals in Australia.
* They report one of the highest propensities for job change - either out of the profession or out of the country and "affirm a disjunction between their preference for and participation in research".

"Read as a whole, the various empirical analyses consistently point in a similar direction: change is needed," the report says, adding there is a need for more policy development, planning and research on Australia's academic workforce.

It says this should include expanding staff numbers, streamlining accountability requirements, engaging the new generation of academics, increasing understanding of the casual workforce, stimulating mission diversity and building institutional leadership capabilities.

Commenting on the report, Professor Lynn Meek, Director of the Institute and one of the authors, said: "Unfortunately, our study's findings do not bode well for the future prospects of the academic profession in Australia. To survive, the sector needs to attract our nation's best and brightest young people and, to do this, major change needs to take place.

"We need more research into the nature of the Australian academic profession, a more concerted effort from university management to balance efficiencies with a culture where academics can thrive, and a more flexible approach to the terms and conditions under which academics are employed.

Meek said that academic remuneration was also an important issue. Although Australian academics' salaries were roughly the same as their overseas colleagues, they were considerably lower than their private sector equivalents. To recruit talented young academics, universities had to be just as attractive as the private sector.

Results of the study were discussed at the Attractiveness of the Academic Profession: The management challenge conference held in Melbourne on Thursday and Friday. Vice-chancellors debated the study's findings and possible responses during the conference.