The student-to-staff ratio in Australian universities has fallen for the first time in more than ten years. Brendan Nelson the Education Minister, has claimed the credit despite having cut federal funding severely over the decade.
A report by the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee shows that last year the ratio of students to staff was 19.4 to 1. While this was down slightly from the figure of 19.7 in 2003, it was a substantial increase on the ratio of 14.5 to 1 a decade ago. John Mullarvey, AVCC chief executive, said universities had done an outstanding job of halting the upward trend, given the funding cuts.
But Dr Nelson failed to cite the government cuts, saying that the decline in the student-to-staff ratio was the result of extra federal funding that had begun to flow to the universities as part of the Government's A$11 billion (£4.7 billion) higher education reforms.
When Conservative John Howard was elected Prime Minister in 1996, the average student to staff ratio was 15.6 to 1. The ratio then rose rapidly as the Government sliced A$1 billion from its higher education spending, which forced universities to lay off academics and to seek alternative sources of revenue.
Over the next eight years, enrolments of Australian and foreign students doubled to almost 1 million while the number of academics fell. In 1996, universities employed about 33,000 academics; last year, it was about 32,000.
With fewer staff and an extra 300,000 students, it is no surprise that lecture theatres are crammed and tutorial rooms are overflowing. Lecturers say they have little time for personal contact with students as they face piles of paperwork and their time for research is squeezed.
In 1996, academics had 53,000 foreign students compared with the 230,000 enrolled this year, many of whom have problems with the English language.
Dr Nelson claimed: "One of the reasons students are packed in like sardines in lecture theatres is that, in many cases, students were over-enrolled by universities."
He added that last year universities were able to hire more staff because of the reforms, which provided extra public investment and increased Higher Education Contribution Scheme revenues.