While attention on higher education in Australia has focused heavily on damage to its international student market, domestic expansion and a new regulatory regime, a separate problem threatens to seriously undermine the sector's future - the ageing academic workforce.
After farming, it has the second oldest occupational cohort in Australia, with 56 per cent of academics aged 45 or over.
At the same time, the number of younger people joining the profession is not projected to keep pace with the attrition rate as senior staff near retirement.
According to a University of Adelaide study released last year, more than half of the growth in permanent academic places between 2003 and 2008 was in the over-50 age group and only 22.8 per cent was in the under-35 age group.
Analysis in Investigating the Ageing Academic Workforce: Stocktake, which was jointly commissioned by Universities Australia and Professions Australia, indicates that departments of education and nursing are facing the biggest problems with the ageing workforce. Professional areas such as law, pharmacy and computer science are better off.
The study, by Graeme Hugo, of Adelaide's National Centre for Social Applications of Geographic Information Systems, and Anama Morriss, an expert in workforce planning, warns that in the next five years the Australian university sector will need to replace almost half of its staff.
However, a shrinking pool of talent will have to meet the demands of a growing student body. The federal government wants 40 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds to be graduates by 2025.
Also, despite the recent blip in demand from overseas students, which was partly a result of negative publicity linked to a series of attacks on Indian students in Australia, this market has become invaluable to universities' income.
In order for institutions to keep pace with the massive explosion in student numbers seen in Australia, a large proportion of teaching is already being undertaken by staff working on casual hourly contracts.
Jeannie Rea, national president of the National Tertiary Education Union, said this had exposed young people embarking on an academic career to conditions that may put them off seeking long-term academic positions.
"They are constantly under pressure so that they feel they are not doing their job well enough and that undermines people's confidence," she said.
There is strong evidence that postgraduate students are looking for careers outside the sector. The Real Academic Revolution, a research briefing published last November by Hamish Coates and Leo Goedegebuure of the LH Martin Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Management, based at the University of Melbourne, cited figures suggesting that nearly half of all people obtaining PhDs preferred to work outside tertiary education.
The danger, said Ms Rea, is that the combination of an expanding higher education system and the accelerating loss of older staff (sometimes prematurely, she said, as vice-chancellors chase "false economy" savings) means that reliance on casual staff will increase.
"We have research report after research report saying that this is a problem and that it is only going to get worse unless we break the cycle," she said.
One-third looking to change jobs
A previous LH Martin report highlighted the fact that Australia had the highest proportion of academics who had considered taking action to change their jobs (33 per cent). And despite the country's relatively high salaries, its academics had the third-lowest level of work satisfaction of the 18 countries surveyed.
Professor Coates, an associate professor with the LH Martin Institute, said that the academic workforce in Australia had not been properly prepared for the rapid expansion and diversification of the student population.
"They don't have the resources, and often lack the training, to do teaching in efficient ways. This has led to a lot of frustration...and it is not the image most had in their cortex when they envisaged becoming an academic," he said.
"There is a gap between what they want to do and the lived realities of the role. What they want to do is research and what they end up doing is administrating the teaching of very large quantities of undergraduate students."
Proposed solutions have focused on both the short-term, such as encouraging people with high-level experience in other professions to make a career jump, and the long-term, such as a root-and-branch rethink of how academic work is performed and perceived.
Ms Rea said that there needed to be more impetus from the Australian government by using targeted investment to create more postdoctorate posts. "We're arguing that the government needs to take the initiative as much as universities. It should be looking specifically at funding genuine new entry positions at postdoctoral level to help get people started in their careers," she said.
"It should result in a win-win situation but it requires a preparedness to invest in the future."
Glenn Withers, chief executive of Universities Australia, said that the government had set up a working party to look at the problem.
He added that the sector was seeking a rise in doctoral funding, priority for lecturers in immigration entry and better overall investment to cut student-to-staff ratios and improve employment conditions.
"We are certainly aware of a problem and we are examining it with a view to putting solutions in place in a timely manner - noting though that the severity of any such ageing does vary significantly in its impact across universities and by faculties," he said.
"There will be slips and strains as we proceed. Some individual universities do need to improve planning and management. But the biggest danger is that (the government at different levels) has yet to respond," Dr Withers added.
Specifically, he cited resistance to the listing of "lecturer" as a skilled occupation in the government's points system for independent migration and the failure so far to improve university base funding to help reduce student-to-staff ratios.
Professor Coates said that the government had a role to play, given its funding of the university system, but the sector needed to take the lead and improve its own image as well as find innovative solutions in the short term.
"It is really up to the industry to take ownership of the problem as do other industries and to figure out how to sell its own careers to other people and the next generation," he said.
"You've got to convince someone pretty early in their undergraduate days that they don't want to be a doctor or lawyer, they want to be an academic. And the academic workforce as a whole just hasn't done a good sales job on itself."
He noted that an added pressure was that other countries such as the US and UK had similar problems so that internationally there was a fall in the supply of academics - which meant that importing talent was not a solution.
"We are getting to a point where unless serious conceptualisation of solutions takes place we are going to be in trouble, and we know this because just about every other country in our orbit is experiencing similar pressures," Professor Coates said.
"The demand for English-speaking academics is just going to start growing exponentially while almost simultaneously the supply will reduce."