The quality of Australian university courses could drop as soon as the current semester, academics warn, as universities employ fewer staff to teach more students.
According to statistics provided to Guardian Australia, student enrolments have already started to rise – even while universities shed staff and billions of dollars of revenue due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The president of the National Tertiary Education Union, Dr Alison Barnes, along with other working academics, said students’ education would suffer as class sizes balloon and staff are either moved to insecure work or let go.
This year the University of Melbourne and the University of New South Wales have announced hundreds of job cuts and, last week, the University of Sydney sent an email asking staff to “suggest” how to cut up to 30% of jobs in some faculties.
Public universities are not eligible for jobkeeper and in June the education minister, Dan Tehan, announced sweeping changes that would cut the overall government funding for degrees.
“Universities will be forced to increase numbers of domestic students in order to avoid a decrease in the level of government funding,” Barnes told Guardian Australia. “[The higher education changes] see a fall in the level of funding per student, so institutions are essentially being told to teach more, with less funding.”
She said fewer permanent staff would have a negative effect on course quality, student support and course delivery.
The chief executive of Universities Australia, Catriona Jackson, told Guardian Australia that everyone in the higher education sector expects student numbers to rise.
Statistics provided to Guardian Australia show a 37% increase in early enrolments in New South Wales and ACT for 2021, compared with the same time last year.
Data from the University Admissions Centre shows more than 30,000 year 12 students have applied early to start next year, a 44% rise compared with last year, and applications from people outside of high school have risen 23%. Overall, just under 45,000 people have applied, an increase of a third compared with last year.
At the University of Sydney, there has been a 10% increase in enrolments for semester two, which has just started this week at most universities. UNSW expects a similar jump in enrolments in the new year.
“Universities Australia – like everyone else – expects demand for university places to rise in 2021,” Jackson said. “A lot of this increase will be due to the recession and its impact on the job market. In recessions, more people seek to upskill and build their qualifications so they’re better placed for employment when the economy eventually recovers.”
Dr Nick Riemer, an academic at the University of Sydney, said class sizes were already growing.
“If this semester is anything to go by, class sizes will be larger” he said. “In the arts faculty we have just been instructed to fill tutorials up – well beyond the usual limits.”
He said that more students and fewer teachers “very clearly” will impact the quality of courses.
“Our enrolments are already up this semester – at the same time that the government is refusing to stop universities sacking thousands of staff. We get these emails saying we have to work out how we can save money at the same time as safeguarding academic excellence. You can’t square that circle.
“Academic quality costs money and the less money there is to spend on it, the quality goes down.”
Other academics at the University of Sydney said tutorials in some subjects had been halved to 30 minutes rather than an hour.
A university spokeswoman confirmed that some tutorials had shortened, but they were “supported by other activities” and it was “not about reducing the overall length of time interacting with students”.
The NTEU is calling on the federal government to increase funding to higher education, and provide a job guarantee to universities to stop them shedding further staff.
Jackson said universities were looking at a loss of between $3.1bn and $4.8bn just in 2020 alone, and over the next four years that will rise to $16bn, with a possible 21,000 jobs “at risk”.
She said that the government’s changes to degree funding, known as the Job Ready Graduates package, allowed for universities to enrol extra domestic students, but it could still not be enough.
“[It] will go some way to absorbing the extra demand. But indications are that the rise in applications will be very large, so we’ll be keeping a very close eye on how well supply and demand line up.”
“Unless measures are taken, they will have a big impact on our future capacity and infrastructure in research,” a UNSW spokeswoman said.
“UNSW’s domestic student numbers are capped and we expect to fill all places in 2021. We would welcome relaxation of the federal government’s cap on places as we have room to take extra students. We expect domestic demand will be up more than 10%.”
The University of Melbourne and the University of NSW both denied that the job cuts would affect the teaching quality.
However, the universities have asked the federal government to allow them to enrol more students, or provide more funding to save the sector in the long term.
A spokesman for the University of Melbourne said it would maintain the quality of its teaching because the university will now be “a smaller institution in the short to medium term, with both fewer students and staff.”
The university said it was still “not clear” whether the government’s changes would be enough to meet growing demand. “Growing enrolments in Stem and health fields will be particularly difficult, since universities will receive less per student in these fields under the proposed funding changes.”
A spokeswoman for the University of Sydney said the upcoming boom in student enrolments had been “known since the early 2000s” and this was now “exacerbated by the pandemic”.
The university said the government needed to immediately increase the number of funded places, and has suggested either targeted place boosts to certain degrees and universities, or a temporary reintroduction of “demand-driven funding”, which would allow universities to enrol without caps.
However, Barnes said it was still unlikely that universities, especially most of the Group of Eight, could ever make up for the loss of international revenue by enrolling more domestic students.
The University of Sydney told Guardian Australia that it had initially planned to make “non-salary cuts”, such as pausing construction, to cope with the pandemic, but that could now change.
“When we did our modelling for 2021 it was widely assumed that borders would be open by September and we assumed that we could have the vast majority of our international students back in the country. Unfortunately that is not the case and so we need to look at all our options.”