Academic Staffing Trends: At what cost to teaching and learning excellence?
26 October 2011, by Professor Emeritus Frank Larkins
Frank Larkins is Professor Emeritus in the School of Chemistry at the University of Melbourne. He is a former Deputy Vice Chancellor at that university, Dean of Science and Dean of Land and Food Resources. He has published more than 200 scientific papers. His current interests are in research, education and energy policy developments. He has recently published a book entitled Australian Higher Education Research Policies and Performance 1987-2010 (MUP 2011). Previous articles published by Professor Larkins is available on the LH Martin Institute website.
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The high growth rate in Australia’s Higher Education Expenditure on Research and Experimental Development (known as HERD) was discussed in an earlier article published by the L.H. Martin Institute (1). Between 2000 and 2008 HERD expenditure more than doubled, increasing by 141 percent. The increase expressed as a percentage of GDP exceeded the growth in all other OECD countries that are our major trading partners. In a subsequent article (2) the fact that 40 percent of the HERD expenditure in 2008 was cross-subsidised from non-primary research sources, principally the Commonwealth Grants Scheme and Student Fee Income, was discussed. On average, across all of Australia’s 39 universities, research expenditure in 2008 represented 36 percent of all university outlays. In some Australian universities research outlays were considerably higher than this average. The driving forces for the growth in research expenditure have been the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) exercise and the goal of universities to improve their international ranking in various schemes that have emerged in the past decade. The international standing of a university does strongly influence the investment that governments, industries and individuals are prepared to make in sourcing research and educational services. An investment in research is designed to achieve such outcomes. The impact of this research-related investment on the academic staffing profile of universities is examined in this article.
The Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) does provide annually a range of higher education statistics include data on staffing and student enrolments (3). The trends in university staffing for the period 2000 to 2010 are analysed in this paper along with student enrollments during the same period. The primary data on which these analyses are based are provided in Appendix 1. Academic staff are classified as Teaching Only (TO), Teaching and Research (T&R) and Research Only (RO). Other categories of staff are Administrative and Technical (T&A) staff (classified as ‘Other’) and Casual staff; the latter may be either academic of T&A staff. The data are provided either on a Full Time Equivalent (FTE) basis or on a number of persons basis with the exception of data for casual staff which is only available on an FTE basis. The student data used in this work are based on persons and is grouped into two categories, research students and coursework students. The latter category includes both undergraduate and postgraduate coursework students. In the present analysis the primary focus is on using person data.
Academic Staffing Trends
The change in the proportion of academic staff numbers in the three categories, TO, T&R and RO, from 2000 to 2010 is shown in Figure 1.
While academic staff numbers in all categories have increased over the 2000-10 period the proportional increases have been in RO staff (from 25% to 32%) and TO staff (from 2.8% to 4.2%) with a significant decline in the proportion of T&R staff from 72.2% to 63.8%. The actual increase in staffing trends in each category over the period is shown in Figure 2.
The TO staff numbers, while small, have increased by 105 percent in the decade (from 1006 to 2060, an increase of 1,054), while over the same period the T&R numbers increased by only 22 percent (from 25,583 to 31,313, an increase of 5730). The RO numbers increased significantly by 78 percent (from 8,840 to 15,704, an increase of 6864). Hence, during the decade the absolute increase in RO staff numbers has been greater than the combined increase in T&R and TO staff numbers. It is the latter group of academic staff that is primarily responsible for the coursework teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. RO staff do contribute to research student supervision along with the T&R staff, but rarely contribute in any significant way to undergraduate teaching.
The consequence of these trends is that whereas on average in Universities there was one RO staff for three T&R+TO staff in 2000, by 2010 the ratio was almost one RO staff for every two T&R+TO staff. The trend over the decade is shown in Figure 3. These are average figures for the Australian higher education system so some universities must have considerably higher RO to T&R+TO staff ratios. If staff FTE are used rather than numbers the two trends do not differ in any significant way as evidenced by the data in appendix 1. Research staff numbers have increased mainly because of the substantially increased investment made by the federal government since 2000 through the ARC and the NHMRC bodies and because universities have used a higher proportion of discretionary funds to support research. Now there are many more research fellowships available, not all fully externally funded, enabling formerly T&R staff to transfer to RO staff positions.
The steep increase in TO staff since 2008, shown in figure 2, is clear evidence that some universities have been reclassifying staff that were previously T&R staff as TO staff in response to the aborted Research Quality Framework (RQF) exercise and the introduction of the ERA exercise. In the preparation by universities for further ERA exercises this trend to reclassify academic staff as TO staff is expected to continue.
Full Time and Fractional Time Staffing Trends
It is informative to compare staff number data with the full time equivalent data to gain an understanding of the trend in fractional and full time employment for the various staffing categories. Overall, an analysis of DEEWR data (3), ignoring casuals, reveals that in 2000 some 11.5 percent of all university staff were fractional time on a FTE basis and 19.4 percent fractional time on a number basis. By year 2010 some 14.3 percent of staff were fractional time on a FTE basis and 24.0 percent on a number basis. The data provides clear evidence that more of the total univesity workforce was fractional time employed in 2010 than in 2000, with the number approaching one on four persons compared with 2000 where the number was one in five persons.
An insight into the changes for the various categories of academic staff, T&R, RO and TO, may be obtained by considering the percentage difference between the staff person numbers and the FTE numbers. The relevant data are presented in Table 1.
The larger the percentage difference the higher the proportion of fractional time staff. There have been increases in all categories. This data may be reinterpreted in terms of the average employment time for a staff member (100-X)/100FTE. For T&R staff there has been a progressive increase in fractional time staff through the decade such that by 2010 the average employment time per staff member was 0.86 FTE compared with 0.9FTE in 2000. The trend for RO staff is weaker varying from an average employment time of 0.89FTE in 2000 to 0.86FTE in 2010. The trend for TO staff is particularly interesting with the average employment time decreasing from 0.84FTE in 2000 to 0.60FTE in 2006; however, thereafter the average employment time has increased to 0.71FTE in 2010. The most likely cause of this change is the reclassification of some full timeT&R staff as substantially full time TO staff, as discussed in terms of the data presented in Figure 2.
During the period 2000 to 2010 there has been very significant growth in total student numbers from 695,485 (2000) to 1,192,657 (2010), a 71.5 percent increase. The overall increase is composed of research student numbers increasing by 49.2 percent, from 37,362 (2000) to 55,740 (2010), and coursework students increasing by 72.8 percent, from 658,123 (2000) to 1,136,917 (2010). These trends are shown in figure 4. Research students represent around five percent of all student enrolments and during the period the proportion has declined slightly from 5.4 percent in 2000 to 4.7 percent in 2010. During the same period total academic staff numbers have increased by only 38.5 percent and academic and administrative staff numbers in all categories by 37.8 percent. Demonstrably student numbers have grown at a significantly faster rate than staff numbers.
Student Number Trends Relative to Staff Number Trends
It is informative to compare the student number data with the staff numbers data for the period. It is preferred to use student person numbers to effective fulltime student load (EFTSL) because persons more accurately reflect academic staff workload issues. When considering coursework students the appropriate denominator to use is the T&R+TO figure, while for the research students the denominator T&R+RO has been used. The outcomes are presented in figure 5. Any additional staff classified separately as casual are not included here as their role in academic program management and delivery is not clearly defined.
Over the decade the system average staff support for research students has remained relatively constant at around 1.2 students for every T&R+RO staff member. However, for coursework students there has been a deterioration in the student staff ratio (SSR) from one T&R+TO staff member to 24.8 students in 2000 to one such staff member to 34.1 students in 2010. Interestingly, the major change occurred between 2000 and 2002. The decline to 2010 represents a 38 percent increase in the ratio and consequently fewer small class student-staff interactions. The deterioration in these interactions has very serious consequences for the teaching and learning capacity of the higher education system to produce quality first degree graduates of international standing. If one compares student numbers with FTE staff numbers then these ratios are larger, such that for coursework students the SSR was 40.2 for 2010.
The growth in teaching only and teaching and research academic staff numbers has not kept pace with the growth in coursework student enrolments in the period 2000 to 2010, such that there has been a deterioration in the coursework student to staff ratio of 38 percent during this period. Many individual universities have chosen to significantly increase research only staff numbers instead of teaching and research staff numbers, largely driven by external funding sources. The proportion of fractional time teaching staff has also increased. The impact of these trends on staff workloads and the quality of coursework teaching programs warrants further examination. While government may use the data to highlight the increased productivity by Australian universities many in the academic community express concerns about excessive workloads and the declining quality of the coursework education being delivered.
3. Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relation, http://www.deewr.gov.au/highereducation/Publications/HEStatistics/Publications/Pages/Home.aspx.
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