The number of enrolments at Australian universities has jumped by almost 40 per cent over the past five years and will exceed 1 million for the first time in 2004.
Although increasing numbers of young Australians hope to go to university after school, the extraordinary rise in the number of enrolments has been largely driven by the recruitment of overseas students.
This year, for the first time, foreign student numbers will exceed 200,000, double the number in 1999. But as universities take up the federal government's option of adding top-up fees to the Higher Education Contribution Scheme charge, the growth in student demand for places may cease.
Brendan Nelson, federal education minister, said last week that too many young Australians were being pressured to go to university instead of pursuing trades, a fact that he said was highlighted by high university dropout rates.
Dr Nelson said that 40,000 students would drop out of degree courses this year, yet Australian industry had difficulty finding apprentices to learn a trade.
"Many young people are not going to university because they want to be there, (but) because someone else wants them to be there - often parents," Dr Nelson said. He said many employers believed the careers advice that students received at school was either ill-informed or misleading.
The government is to urge universities to set up diplomas of education in careers counselling.