UNSW’s deputy vice-chancellor has reflected on the growing pains of Australian universities.

The University of NSW’s Merlin Crossley says the demand-driven system is causing Australia’s tertiary sector to expand, but there are some tensions forming between the rate of growth in student numbers, staff numbers and research money.

He says student numbers have increased, and so have academic staff numbers, but university managers are squeezing more efficiencies out of their staff, so they are hiring at a reduced rate.

However, the increase in academics is affecting the annual contest for research grants.

“More academics are competing for a pool of research funds that has not expanded quickly enough,” Dr Crossley says in an article for The Australian.

“In some disciplines the competition has become extreme and it is simply not possible for all aspiring academics to follow a teaching and research career path.”

He says that electronic means will be used to cut costs and help the universities deal with swelling student numbers.

“Universities will welcome more international students as the middle class in Asia and beyond continues to expand. Already full campuses will start overflowing.

“To cope with this, many universities will expand their academic year (or have done so already) and others will offer more online degrees.

“Staff previously employed on sessional contracts may soon have opportunities to contribute across the year either on campus or online.”

With a constantly shifting job market requiring an equally constant rate of re-skilling, Dr Crossley says shorter, 12 or 18-month diplomas, will expand.

“While these may serve as stepping stones to further study or employment, they may also distract some students from vocational pathways,” he said.

The broader uptake of university education means more people will go on to further study, the deputy vice-chancellor said.

“With bachelors degrees being in reach of many who aspire to them, a new differentiator is emerging, and those seeking competitive advantage will increasingly aspire to a masters qualification.”

Dr Crossley said the government should be more aware of the detail of the changing state of tertiary education.

“The government has consistently shown itself unwilling to fund postgraduate education for all,” he said.

“It is likely that the government will continue to contribute to ensuring educational opportunities for all, but the burden of supporting so many students, as well as increasingly sophisticated research, has made it hard for successive ministers, who have not always succeeded in explaining the overriding importance of this enterprise.”