Enrolments at Australia's universities continue to outstrip the growth in staff numbers, and student-to-teacher ratios have reached their highest levels in decades.
Figures compiled by the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee show that the number of students per academic has increased from 13.5 in 1989 to almost 19 last year, an increase of 40 per cent.
Following the election of the conservative government of prime minister John Howard in 1996, and a subsequent slashing in spending on higher education, the student-to-staff ratio increased by 20 per cent.
Despite the creation of 1,400 full-time equivalent posts in 26 universities last year, the situation did not improve because 12 institutions suffered net job losses.
In 2000, universities employed more than 33,000 academics and enrolled 700,000 students. In 1989, there were 30,000 academic staff for just 441,000 students.
Students at the University of Melbourne told a senate inquiry into higher education last week about the impact of increasing class sizes.
The students said that research carried out at Melbourne revealed that the larger the class size, the less satisfied students were with the quality of teaching.
"We have a case study of a student doing an engineering degree who was expected to write a report about a fairly simple practical," one student leader said. "Rather than enabling those students to go into a lab in small groups... they sat in a lecture theatre with 300 others and watched the practical being done on a video."
Carolyn Allport, president of the National Tertiary Education Union, said failure to employ staff to meet the growing need was compromising teaching quality.
"There simply isn't enough time to give students the individual tuition and advice that was once a standard part of a university education.
"Increasing reliance on casual staff [more than three in four of the new jobs were filled by casual appointments] compounds this problem, with these staff less available to students," she said.