Australia is facing a shortfall of at least 5,000 teachers within five years following savage cuts to faculty of education enrolments that have reduced the supply of new teachers to dangerously low levels.
Despite mounting evidence of the looming shortage, and protests from Australia's deans of education, universities have continued to slash trainee teacher numbers. From a peak of almost 80,000 students in 1991, education faculties have been forced to reduce enrolments to an estimated 70,000 this year.
In some institutions, student numbers have been halved and the overall downward trend is continuing. The cuts were justified because of a large oversupply of teachers in the early 1990s and poor job prospects for new graduates.
State education departments also reduced school staff numbers to save money and because of a fall in the school population.
Some states have taken a budgetary axe to education expenditure - one of the largest government spending items - so as to reduce debt. In Victoria, a conservative state government eliminated more than 8,000 teaching positions - more than 15 per cent of the workforce - following its election late in 1992, saving more than Aus$300 million (Pounds 150 million) a year.
But pupil numbers are on the rise and with a four-year training lead time, states that have taken this sort of action may soon be forced to recruit teachers overseas. In the past, Australia has sought teachers in Britain and the United States but with Britain facing its own crisis in staffing secondary schools this may no longer be possible.
Research by Barbara Preston, a consultant to the Australian Council of Deans of Education, reveals that in some states schools are likely to experience shortages next year in some specialist fields. Ms Preston says demand for new teachers is likely to be 15,000 a year before the decade ends, whereas education faculties will be producing only about 10,000 teacher graduates by that time.
The current pool of unemployed teachers will be sufficient to meet demand for a brief period, Ms Preston says, but she has urged universities to begin increasing their intakes into initial teacher education programmes immediately. In a series of investigations for the council of deans over recent years, Ms Preston has repeatedly warned that cutting back on enrolments in teacher education will result in a shortfall. Her latest report says that while the prospect of a serious shortfall may seem hard to believe, after years of job shortages, the recent past has been an aberration.
"The teaching labour market is vulnerable to the economic cycle in ways that reinforce each other," Ms Preston said. "People with teaching qualifications move to jobs not directly related to their qualifications (when) alternative occupations are readily available. In periods of recession, teacher resignation rates are low, graduates who may want alternative jobs cannot find them and apply for teaching positions, and former teachers seek to return to teaching as other employment dries up."
Ms Preston says that when the Australian economy improves teacher resignations rise. Fewer new graduates seek jobs in schools and former teachers who may have gone back to the classroom are then able to obtain other employment.