Australia ponders grey matter

June 16, 1995

Academic staff turnover in Australia has slowed so much in five years that senior administrators are alarmed at the dearth of young enthusiastic graduates who could attract research grants and provide fresh perspectives.

According to federal Education Department statistics, some 15,000 students graduated with higher degrees last year, but most had little hope of campus employment.

Federal and state government plans to abolish compulsory retirement at 65 are expected to cut turnover too, while recession has meant many staff stay put because of fewer opportunities outside.

The National Institute of Labour Studies reports that the rate of resignations and retirements dropped by almost half between 1989 and 1992 and continued to fall for a further two years.

In the first study of its kind, the researchers surveyed a random sample of departments in universities and conducted case-study interviews.

Despite economic upturn, follow-up case studies last year indicated people were still not quitting. "It is our view that the very low quit rates currently being experienced by departments are below optimal given the desire by many heads of department for fresh faces, ideas and outlooks to invigorate their departments," researchers say.

They note that in 1994 there was almost no shortage of academics to fill the vacancies that did arise. Positions that were hard to fill tended to be restricted to growth areas such as computing and information technology.

"Generally speaking, most departments could attract suitable candidates for any position they might advertise at the going wage rate," the researchers say.

These findings are in marked contrast to a 1990 report by the institute which suggested Australia could face a shortfall of 20,000 academics by the end of the decade. That report claimed universities would be forced to recruit staff from overseas but that this would be difficult as other countries were experiencing a similar shortage.

In the latest report, the researchers say the most common reason academics gave for leaving was because they had found a better job. The second was dissatisfaction with increasing teaching loads, too little money and time for research, and run-down infrastructure.

"Many departments did not expect any resignations because there were no jobs in the market place for their staff to move to," the report says. "Several complained about the lack of job opportunities and lack of advancement for junior members of staff in their disciplines."

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