The world's universities face a "global manpower war" as they compete for a shrinking pool of graduates with doctorates to replace retiring faculty, according to Michael Gibbons, secretary general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities.
Professor Gibbons based his warning on a study by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, demonstrating that not enough PhDs are attracted to academia to have a significant impact on the many posts that will be vacated by an ageing professoriat.
Professor Gibbons, speaking at the ACU's annual meeting in London, said:
"Across the Commonwealth, most universities are in the same boat - they are simply not going to be training new PhDs to meet this demand. We are likely to experience asset-stripping on a massive scale that can only leave the global system of higher education weakened, if not fatally undermined."
The AUCC's Trends in Higher Education describes a retirement bulge among Canada's 34,500 full-time faculty. In 2001, 12,000 were aged over 55 and the report estimates that by 2011 Canada will need to hire 20,000 to 45,000 new full-time professors, depending on a projected 20 to 30 per cent increase in student enrolment. The discrepancy of 25,000 depends mostly on whether universities will collectively decide to return to the lower staff-to-student ratios of the 1980s. Over the past 20 years, the proportion of faculty over 54 has doubled.
But retirements and rising enrolments are not the only factor driving the need for new faculty. Research demands have grown as the federal government encourages universities to increase the national level of research and development.
Martha Crago, president of the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies, said that Canada would need to double the number of PhDs to meet both the retirement bulge and the need for more research and development.
Dr Crago said one of the short-term ways to increase the number of PhDs was to increase financial support so that students were not taking time away from their studies to support themselves.
Universities and graduate students are unlikely to see any new money until the federal government's next budget is released.
If the government does answer the call for increased fellowships and scholarships for graduate students, the AUCC report says the efforts "will be in vain if the tremendous institutional costs of expanding graduate enrolment are not also recognised and addressed".