Campus rush hits Australia

May 17, 2002

Australian universities have experienced a 14 per cent jump in enrolments this year with an estimated 835,000 students expected on campus.

The unprecedented increase of more than 100,000 students above 2001 enrolments sets a new record. A decade ago, fewer than 560,000 students were undertaking university courses and it took another five years for enrolments to rise by 100,000.

But the increase is less a result of newcomers flooding into lecture theatres than of many more students than expected continuing their studies, along with a further surge in foreign student numbers.

Although universities provided an additional 33,380 government-funded places above their quota, more than 50,000 Australians are believed to have been turned away this year. Others decided to pay the full cost of tuition in order to gain entry while the number of fee-paying foreigners is expected easily to exceed last year's 110,000.

The sudden rise in enrolments, however, has not been accompanied by a commensurate increase in academic and general staff numbers. On the contrary, several universities are planning further cuts in their staffing because of funding shortfalls.

Academics fear that the already excessive student-staff ratio can only worsen. From 13 students per teacher in 1990, the ratio rose to 17:1 in 1997 and is expected to exceed 20:1 this year.

The Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee released estimates of university enrolments for 2002 last week. As well as the unexpected boost to overall numbers, the AVCC reported that postgraduate enrolments had increased by 23 per cent, to 195,000, compared with 2001.

President Deryck Schreuder said the issue of access for all qualified Australians had to be addressed through the review of higher education established by education minister Brendan Nelson. Professor Schreuder said the AVCC would argue strongly for universities to have the capacity and resources to allow all eligible Australians the opportunity of university education.

While the projected growth in numbers showed the willingness of universities to meet the demand for their courses, Professor Schreuder said institutions were at the limit of the government-funded places they could offer.

If they took more than the government quota, they received funding of only A$2,699 (£1,000) a place for these students, significantly below the amount paid under the government's Higher Education Contribution Scheme. This was simply not sufficient in the long term to provide high-quality courses, he said.

"Ensuring that universities receive sufficient funding for the students who wish to enrol with them will be a major issue that the AVCC will pursue during the minister's higher education review," Professor Schreuder said.

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