There has been extensive coverage recently of universities’ tough new criteria to limit the number of students they will take next semester and next year. The universities of Auckland, Massey, Victoria and Otago have all recently announced criteria to limit the number of students they take. They are being driven to do so by the combined effect of a demographic baby boom of young potential new students leaving school and passing into tertiary education, along with the pressure of the global recession, which also is encouraging more people into study.
The government’s current policy is to cap the number of students each university, polytechnic and wÄnanga can take, rather than let their rolls grow to meet the demand. All that has meant there are currently significantly more potential students than there are spaces for them to study in public tertiary education institutions.
There are two points to note however:
AUT was, understandably, fairly upbeat about this result as it managed to teach more students with fewer teachers and thus report a net surplus of $8 million, 69 percent greater than in the 2008.
This ratio between staff and students is one of the criteria most polytechnics and universities report on each year in their annual reports. The figures from last year’s reports have been coming out this month and show a startlingly consistent pattern.
AUT’s staff-student ratio rose from 16.8 students per staff member to 18.8. That is an increase of two students per staff member or nearly 12 percent. For staff that number reflects workload. For students it is an indicator of quality. Oxford University, which has famously promoted itself as the best university in the world because of its one-on-one tutorial system, has a staff-student ratio of about 10 to one. The University of Otago’s ratio is 16 to one.
AUT is not the only tertiary institution to report a dramatic rise in its staff-student ratio last year. Otago Polytechnic had an increase in the student-staff ratio from 14.7 students per staff member to 17 students per staff member (up 16 percent)
Manukau, Unitec and Wintec all had similar rises. Auckland, Otago, Victoria and Waikato universities all reported rises in their ratios. Weltec in Wellington rose by three students per staff member. There were also rises at Christchurch Polytechnic, NorthTec in Whangarei, and WaiÄriki.
Indeed the only institution that we followed which did not report a rise in their staff-student ratio was Lincoln University.
All that pressure is likely to be repeated this year as large numbers of students continue to leave high school looking for places to study.
The result for academics and for general staff at all these institutions is increased workload; more marking, assessment, pastoral care, and student support but no more resources or time to do any of that work. Ultimately that starts to impact on the quality of education they are trying to provide to their students.
Universities and polytechnics have been told by the Tertiary Education Commission and the State Services Commission to increase productivity and also to report healthier surpluses at the end of each year. Their response, predictably, seems to have been to try to teach more students with the same number of staff (or, in many cases, fewer staff).
There has been a lack of planning by our government to anticipate an obvious demographic increase in students (especially during a recession).
Many young New Zealanders are missing out on places to study at present. But equally of concern is our commitment to providing those who are getting a place in the lecture theatres with a quality education. As staff have less time to teach them, as class sizes grow and as student support is spread more thinly education is likely to suffer. At present it seems that institutions around the country are testing to find out exactly where that workload breaking point is, both for staff and students.