AUSTRALIA: The disjointed growth of university staffing

The Australian university sector has increased rapidly over the past two decades but the acceleration in student numbers has far exceeded staff growth, according to an article in the journal People and Place . The academic staff component for teaching has grown at a much lower rate than for academic research and there has been high growth in numbers of staff who support academic activities. The major 'villain' in this disjointed growth is federal governments that have divided funding into smaller and smaller portions, and demanded more and more time and resources to apply for such funding and be accountable for it.


The past two decades have seen unprecedented growth in Australian higher education. Universities now have many more students, and understandably, they have also appointed many more staff. During this period, universities changed from being elitist institutions through the process described by Trow as 'massification' [1]. In fact, the overall number of individual students enrolled at Australian universities increased from about 441,000 in 1989 [2] to over one million enrolled at 38 universities and myriad private institutions in 2007 [3].

Expressed in 'full-time equivalent' terms, in order to control for those students enrolled part-time, and to match staff numbers which are also expressed as full-time equivalents, there has been a growth in the student body of just over 100% [4]. About 26% of the expanded student population comprises overseas students.

Given the doubling of the number of students to be taught, one might have expected a similar increase in the number of teachers. However, this is not the case. As shown in Table 1, teaching staff numbers increased by about one-third overall, but over half of that growth was in casual staff. Teachers with continuing or longer time-limited contracts increased by only 19%. This casualisation of the academic labour force is a story in itself and has been dealt with elsewhere [5].

Table 1 shows that there were 65,660 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff in 1989 and 97,885 in 2007, an increase of over 32,200 or 49.1%. These numbers include casual staff, which by 2007 represented 22.2% of teaching staff and 14.8% of staff overall.

In 2007, these staff members were divided between the academic activities of teaching (34.2%) and research (9.7%) and administrative and other activities (56.0%). This represents a considerable redistribution since 1989 between teaching and research (38.2% and 3.2% respectively), with administrative and other activities at 58.6%. As shown in the table, the number of teachers grew by a relatively modest 8,435 or 33.7%, and given the growth in student numbers, the student to teacher ratio increased from 14 to 21 students per teacher.

The number of research only academic staff increased more spectacularly, increasing by 7,426, or 352.7%. The number of staff involved in 'support' increased by 16,365, or 42.5%. It should be noted that some of these support staff occupy positions classified as academic, such as vice-chancellors, their deputies and myriad pro-vice-chancellors who in most instances would previously have been academics engaged in academic work. These 'support' academics are employed under academic conditions, but their universities have reported that they have a 'non-academic' function. The proportion of these has remained relatively unchanged.

It is clear that staff growth has not kept pace with the growth of the student body. Moreover, staff most directly linked to students, that is, teachers, have increased in number at only one-third the rate that student numbers have increased. Much of the growth that there has been in the number of teachers, has been casual teachers. This factor also has an impact on continuing appointment staff that will usually be responsible for the supervision of casual staff [6]. Although the number of research academics has increased spectacularly in proportionate terms, they make up less than 10% of all staff.

Of course, universities do not live by teachers and researchers alone; considerable numbers of staff are required to provide direct support to teachers and researchers and provide central administrative support. The table shows that the biggest increase in university staffing has been in general staff involved in administrative and other support. In effect, 16,365 new FTE positions have been created, an increase of 42.5%. This represents a considerable increase in university staff, but it is rather less spectacular than the increase in the number of students.

A more detailed explanation of the staff statistics used in this paper can be found in the Endnotes [7].

The principal focus of this paper is the distribution of the staff described in Table 1 as 'Administrative and Support Staff', because this group has expanded considerably more than the number of teaching staff. Table 2 shows the distribution of these support staff according to the type of department they work in.

In statistical returns to the government, universities link staff to one of several types of department. In 2007, 42.9% of support staff were in academic departments, 18.5% were in 'academic support' areas (including 7.5% in libraries), about 7.4% were involved in student services or public services, and 31.2% were in 'general university services' which is another name for 'central admin.'

'Student services' includes health services, counselling and accommodation services and student residences, employment services, student loans/scholarships/assistance services and other student services. 'Public services' refer to adult education, continuing education, public broadcasting services and other public services. These represented 6.0% and 1.4% respectively of total administrative and support staff in 2007. Table 2 also includes academic staff members that work neither as teachers nor as researchers, as shown in Table 1 (1,285, 1,625 and 1,864 FTE in 1989, 1998 and 2007, respectively).

Perhaps conventional wisdom presumes that the growth in administrative support has occurred in central administration. In fact, the largest increases have occurred in numbers of support staff in academic departments. Between 1989 and 2007, the equivalent of an additional 8,761 full-time jobs were created in academic departments, an increase of 59.2%. By comparison, 'general university services' overall growth was 3,432 full-time jobs, or 25.1%.

There has also been growth in the number of staff shown in Table 2 as 'academic support services' staff, but it is interesting to note that this growth has not occurred in the university sector's libraries. In 2007, there were 23 fewer FTE staff in libraries than in 1989. The proportion of all staff made up by library staff declined from 10.7% to 7.5% over that period. Perhaps new information and communication technologies (ICTs) have improved library 'efficiency' over the years, although it often seems that new ICT leads to the need for additional rather than fewer staff.

Whatever the reason, few universities are likely to advertise the fact of steady-state staffing in their libraries at a time when the number of FTE students has increased by 352,000 and the number of staff by over 32,000 FTE. There has been growth in non-library academic support departments. Included here are computing centres, educational research and development centres, external studies centres (excluding academic functions), and audio-visual and media. Staff in student services and public services departments are also shown in Table 2.

'General university services' grew by 3,432 or 25.1% over the period, with a particular advance by 'administrative and overhead services' (4,391 or 50.7%). Few would argue that this is not a lot of extra staff to have at HQ. It must be noted that these official figures mask a much greater growth in numbers of general university services staff.

Table 2 shows that there were 14 fewer buildings, property and grounds staff, 1,030 fewer cleaning staff and 319 fewer security staff in 2007 compared with 1989. It is not likely that there has really been a decline in the number of people involved in these facilities-related areas, but these were among the first areas to be out-sourced. For example, most universities ceased hiring their own cleaning and security staff some years ago, but instead now hire them from companies that supply such services.

In the modern university therefore, many facilities-related services are provided by outside companies and paid for via a monthly invoice, rather than being provided by university staff members paid through the university payroll.

Notwithstanding the debate about the relative cost efficiency of using in-house vis á vis purchased services [8], it is extremely unlikely that there would have been fewer staff in cleaning and security had there not been a fundamental change in the way universities acquired these services. One imagines that with a doubling of the number of students and an increase of over 42% in the number of staff, on top of an indeterminate increase in the number of campuses, more cleaning, security and other facilities staff would be required, not fewer.

Table 2 indicates that there were 156 cleaners and 294 security personnel in 2007. If the requirement for cleaning and security had matched the additional 'administration and overhead services staff' (that is, an increase of over 50% since 1989), the combined total number of cleaning and security staff would have been around 2,700 in 2007. Had there been an increase of 50% in the number of cleaning and security personnel, the overall increase in general universities services staff would have been around 41%, not the 25.1% shown in Table 2.

Why the growth of staff involved in support?

The number of staff involved in work other than academic work is large and growing. Why has this occurred? Why has the growth rate in numbers of administrative and other support staff been so much greater than the growth rate in the staff required to teach all the extra students now enrolled in university (and equivalent) courses?

Even if the link between the number of students and support staff is somewhat indirect, a burgeoning student body increases the need for support staff as well as teachers. However, teaching staff numbers increased by only 33.7%, and staff with continuing or time limited contracts by only 19.0%, and over half of the growth in teacher numbers was generated by casual staff. Is it reasonable, therefore, for the number of support staff to have increased by 42.5%?

Several reasons for the disproportionate growth of administrative and support staff can be identified, and many of them relate directly to government policies, particularly those of federal governments over the past 20 years. Government policies require universities to compete with each other for funds through a range of research and other schemes, and for prestige, in order to attract an increasing flow of students, particularly those paying full-cost fees.

The same policies then require universities to account for those funds. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with providing evidence that funds have been applied appropriately, but the pattern has been that funding is provided in smaller and smaller parcels, each with its own set of accountability requirements.

This increased control of universities by governments has been described as 'steering at a distance' [9]. According to Marginson:

"The Australian [higher education] system provides an example of a quasi-market in which the development of a stronger institutional management, the introduction of government-institution negotiations over educational profiles, and the new systems of competitive bidding, performance management and quality assessment have all been used to steer academic work and to install a process of continuous self-transformation along modern neo-liberal lines. Following a change of government in 1996 there has been some movement from a quasi-market to a more fully developed economic market, but no relaxation of government control." [10]

Therefore, universities find themselves in a situation that requires more rather than less reporting, even though the proportion of funding from government sources has dropped from over 80% towards the end of the 1980s to about 40% by 2007 [11].

Quality and research policies have led to increased numbers of support staff, and in the case of research, to an increase of nearly 7,500 research academics (see Table 1). Quality assurance procedures instituted from the early 1990s have seen universities becoming conscious of what they do, how well they do it and how they can improve what they do. Therefore, universities needed to create new administrative departments to collect, assess and report in fine detail on their activities. All types of staff, including academics, have been involved in these departments. It is only natural, therefore, for numbers of support staff to have increased.

Research policies have had the effect of requiring all universities to become 'research' universities. This has had a two-fold effect on staffing.

On one hand, many more academic staff now spend more time applying for government-sourced grants from agencies such as the Australian Research Council. There has been a spectacular increase in the number of research-only academic staff as an outcome. In 2007, research academics made up 9.7% of total university staffing, up from 3.2% in 1989.

On the other hand, most universities have also increased the number of support staff built into the research process. Centralised 'research services' departments have increased their numbers, and most academic departments and faculties now have a range of research-support, business and commercial officers seeking to foster research.

Related to this is another factor that can be included under what Jeff Goldsworthy described as 'research grant mania'. He noted that universities have a manic obsession with maximising external funding, especially via competitive grants schemes. His complaint is that many scholars, particularly those in the humanities do not need grants to conduct their research, but are pressured into applying for them because research income is used as one of the measures for evaluating research performance [12].

There are several examples of government initiatives that are likely to have increased universities' bureaucratic workloads, necessitating the hiring of more support staff. It is much less easy to defend these demands than it is for policies related to quality and research.

The year 1989 has been taken as the starting point for the analysis here, but it also represents the year of re-introduction of tuition fees for domestic students, initially called HECS - the Higher Education Contribution Scheme. Although universities were compensated for their role in collecting money on behalf of the federal government, it meant university fees offices had to be expanded. The need for such offices had been all but redundant since the abolition of fees for domestic students from 1974.

Another example is the imposition of compliance costs on universities, including projects such as ex-education minister Brendan Nelson's 'student learning entitlement' (SLE) reporting, one of the changes introduced via the government's Backing Australia's Future inquiry. Phillips KPA estimated that the cumulative cost to universities of responding to the government's whims under Backing Australia's Future would be $110 to $115 million between 2004 and 2007 [13].

The SLE system requires universities to report extremely detailed information about students and the time they spend at university. The theory behind the introduction of this system was that the university system was riddled with perpetual students. In fact, there was no evidence for this; most students try to get out of the system as quickly as possible, because their fee liability increases whether they pass or not [14].

Another bureaucratic factor is that the uncoordinated accountability requirements of federal and state governments have led to an increase in staff numbers. Most Australian universities were established under state legislation, which requires them to report to parliament periodically. There is nothing inappropriate with this per se, but the states have not synchronised their requirements with each other, nor with the reporting requirements of the federal government. Therefore most universities find themselves reporting similar (but different) information to two levels of government. No thought of efficiency by governments here, just accountability.

There are other areas in which universities have expanded their numbers of support staff. One of these is in the public relations and marketing area. Having adopted the language of business, there is much talk about 'branding'.

Expert support staff have been hired by most universities to provide these services. Many universities have devised slogans in recent years, some sillier than others, by which they seek identification [15]. Universities have therefore expanded their central bureaucracies with many people to promote and market themselves. In some instances, academic faculties and departments have also hired such staff. A cost-benefit analysis of the effect being told to Go Boldly (Monash) or Dream Large (Melbourne) would be difficult to calculate. Published university staff statistics are not sufficiently detailed to see how many more staff there are in university public relations offices.

Another area that has led to an increase in support staff numbers has arisen because of the explosion in overseas student numbers. Universities increased their overseas student enrolment because this was usually the simplest way to replace their dwindling government funds. Overseas full fee-paying students contributed 1.5% of overall university funding in 1989 [16]. By 2007, the proportion had increased to 15% [17].

Although the most obvious need to deal with overseas students is for more teachers, many support staff have been appointed for activities such as marketing to convince students to attend one university rather than another, and to deal with the many issues overseas students might have with respect to housing, finances and well-being in general. Overseas students (quite rightly) deserve to receive, from their Australian universities, some of the pastoral and other care that most domestic students receive from their immediate on-site families.

Perhaps one of the more surprising things revealed by university staff statistics is the extent of the growth of the support function in academic departments. Table 2 showed that departmental support increased by 59.2% between 1989 and 2007. This was rather more than the growth of 'central admin', whether or not one adjusts for the out-sourced cleaners and security.

Does this mean that support staff are now undertaking duties formally required of academic staff? Are academic staff better-served by having departmental support staff to provide them with more time to spend on research or seeing students? The likely answer to questions such as these is 'no'. Academic departments probably have more staff now than in the past in order for them to be accountable to central administration, which in turn must be accountable to government bodies.

One reason could be the failure of ICT to generate staff savings via the introduction of 'clever' systems. IT systems are often sold with the promise of savings. Do they do so, or do they create the need for even more (different) staff? A related reason could be the increased expectations of all university staff for information. Much information that was considered 'timely' if it were generated overnight is now demanded on-the-spot.

A knock-on effect of the requirement for universities to report to government bodies is that those government bodies also end up requiring more staff to deal with all the reports now required from universities. And so on.


The aim of this paper was to outline changes in university staffing since the start of the so-called 'Dawkins revolution' from 1989. Universities still teach students and undertake research, but at a more frenetic rate than in the past. As in the past, these academic activities still require staff to support them.

However, the academic staff component for teaching has grown at a much lower rate than for academic research and the growth in numbers of staff to support these academic staff activities. It is hardly fair to blame they administrative staff themselves for the growth in their number, but this happens from time to time. With few exceptions, former academics run our universities and support staff merely react to their whims.

The major 'villain' in this disjointed growth in staffing is federal governments of either persuasion, which through a mixture of poor and misguided policy, divide funding into smaller and smaller portions, and demand more and more time and resources to apply for such funding, and then to be accountable for it.

* Dr Ian R Dobson is an Australian scholar and editor of the Australian Universities' Review.

* "Uneven development: The disjointed growth of university staffing since Dawkins" appears in the latest edition of the journal People and Place , Volume 18 Number 1, published quarterly by the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University.


1- M. Trow. 'From mass higher education to universal access: the American advantage', Research and Occasional Paper Series, CSHE 1.00 Berkeley, Center for Studies in Higher Education, 2000. Trow's theoretical perspective was that massification has occurred in a higher education system once it is seen as a right among many classes of society, not just the elite. Higher education starts to become universal once access is possible for 50% or more of the appropriate age cohorts of the population.

2- DETYA (Department of Employment, Training and Youth Affairs). 2001. Higher Education Student Statistics Time Series Tables 2000. Canberra, AGPS. Table 1.

3- DEEWR (Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations) 2008. Staff Statistics 2007 Table 25. Accessed on 25 February 2009 at:

4- Excludes FTE students enrolled at institutions for which staff numbers are not reported. For reasons best known to the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, numbers of students (both enrolments and full-time equivalents) are reported for all registered higher education providers (including private providers), but numbers of staff for most of these institutions are not reported. In order to compensate for this situation, the student figures shown in Table 2 exclude those for private providers, with the exception of private universities Bond University and Notre Dame Australia and the Melbourne College of Divinity, which do report their staff numbers. In order to match the student numerator with the staff denominator in 2007, the former needs to be reduced by something like 24,000 FTE in institutions.

5- See for example Junor (2004), Percy et al (2008), Lazarsfeld-Jensen and Morgan (2009) and Coates et al. (2009).

6- Lazarsfeld-Jensen and Morgan (2009) p54.

7- The staff numbers shown in this paper include all types of university staff, except for those employed by dual-sector institutions to work in TAFE/VET (Technical and further education) divisions and CRCs (Cooperative Research Centres). In 2007, there were about 1300 and 337 of these staff, respectively. The reason for their exclusion is that not all universities have these staff types. University staff are formally described in at least two ways in the statistical reporting required by the government. First, they can be described according to what their 'duties' are. About 45% of staff are 'academic' (described as professors, lecturers, research fellows etc.) The remaining staff are support staff of various types, employed as managers, administrators, laboratory technicians, etc . Second, staff can be described according to their 'function'. These functions are 'teaching-only', 'teaching -and-research', 'research-only' and 'other'. The first two of these functions are the exclusive domain of 'academic' staff. However, 'academic' staff can be employed to undertake all four functions.

8- CNET 2005. Gartner: Outsourcing costs more than in-house. Accessed 17 December 2009 at:

9- See for example S. Marginson. Steering from a distance: Power relations in Australian higher education. Higher Education, Volume 34, Number 1, July 1997.

10- Ibid p. 63.

11- DEEWR 2008. Finance Statistics 2007. Table 1. Adjusted Statement of Financial Performance, 2007 ($'000).

12- J. Goldsworthy. Research grant mania. Australian Universities' Review V50:2. Pp17-24.

13- Phillips KPA (2006). Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee. University Reporting Requirements. Final Report (Revised). May 2006. Byron Bay, NSW, Australia. p.35.

14- Ibid.

15- See for example, J. Gora Run that funky slogan by me. Australian Universities' Review 52(1), 2010.

16- DEET Selected Higher Education Statistics 1990. Table 36. Higher Education Institution Income 1989.

17- DEEWR 2008. Finance Statistics 2007. Table 1. Adjusted Statement of Financial Performance, 2007 ($'000).