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We need staff to teach new students

Written By: - Date published: 2:12 pm, July 5th, 2010 - 6 comments
Categories: education - Tags:

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 wānanga 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:

  1. Tertiary institutions are able to grow their rolls by 3.5 percent more than their government imposed cap while still receiving government funding for the extra students they take. Institutions have been doing this last year most institutions grew their rolls significantly. While many students are missing out because the government and institutions are working together to tighten entry criteria, there are still more students being educated than ever before. For instance, at AUT the number of equivalent full-time student (EFTS) numbers increased last year from the previous year by over 10 percent to over 18,000 EFTS.
  2. What is not increasing however is the number of staff employed at our universities and polytechnics to support and teach all these new students. Government budget cuts and pressure to justify any new expenditure on employees have seen staff numbers fall or remain static at many institutions. So, at AUT for instance, full-time equivalent academic staff numbers fell last year by 2.8 percent despite that dramatic growth in student numbers.

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 Waiāriki.

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.

Sharn Riggs
Tertiary Education Union
National Secretary

6 comments on “We need staff to teach new students”

  1. Fisiani 1

    So in other words too many wannabe but barely literate students have been enrolling at tertiary institutions in the last decade and failing miserably. Now they will not be admitted and no longer rack up student loans or costs to the tertiary institutions. It’s called educational and economic literacy. Some of these students would be far better off in the workforce.

    • Hi Fisiani, I think you misread what Sharn was saying. She didn’t complain about not enough spaces students at universities. (That’s a separate issue and, in fact, she noted that there are more students than ever before.) Rather, she was arguing that those students who are studying at university, polytechnic or wananga are in danger of missing out on a high quality education because the increase in students is not being matched by an increase in lecturers, tutors and support staff to help teach those students.
      One further point – the growth in student numbers is not because institutions are accepting ‘barely literate’ students – it’s because demographically there are more 18-20 year olds at the moment than there have been previously. There is also a recession, which means more people are choosing to study to upskill themselves so they can find the job you would like them to get.

  2. tc 2

    mmmm well yes quite fisiani….if only there was those available job thingys that make up a workforce.

    • felix 2.1

      Going by Fizzy’s previous remarks, I don’t think he’s too concerned with paying them for their participation.

  3. TightyRighty 3

    and all those anecdotal stories of jobs just appearing because universities offered courses in basket weaving, radio sing-a-longs and night time golf. or the anecdotal stories of yet another design student thinking that the are the next big thing in advertising. upon finishing? told to wait in line, take number three thousand. so they go on the dole till their number is called, which is never, so they piss off overseas, as “the opportunities don’t exist for my greatness”. all at taxpayer expense.

  4. Giarne Harrison 4

    Good article, thank you. The quality of teaching at universities is compromised by an approach to higher student to lecturer ratios.

    With the merger of all teacher trainee courses this ratio is further hamstringing the ability of lecturers to meet the needs of the education sector. Large homogenous groups should never be used to deliver lectures for many of the courses in teacher education. Lecturers can no longer focus on quality teaching, assess dispositions for teaching, deliver quality modelling, or stay invested in and up to date with quality teaching by visiting schools. This is all down to MONEY. Teacher Ed and courses like it cost far too much to deliver in this method. If all our prospective teachers ever see are large lectures, being talked at for 2 hours with the only “interaction” being a hand-written OHP, some waving arms and the ocassional walking round in front of the podium – what are they going to replicate when they get into schools.

    Short sited policies like this do nothing to help our economy grow. Universities and Polytechnics should never have been trying to make profits … they have a loftier purpose, to grow the intellectual property of our society. The government still doesn’t have the funding model right to allow Uni’s and Poly’s to do a better job.

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