Sunday, 6 February 2011

Academic staff shortages?

The National Business Review reports that Universities New Zealand projects dire academic staff shortages in the years to come.
Current student numbers are at a record high. The study, carried out by Business and Economic Research Limited, made projections for low, medium and high student body increases. Based on these figures, the universities will need to attract between 560 and 920 new academic staff each year between now and 2020. Around 500 new academic staff were appointed in 2008.

“The report recommends a number of actions that the universities can take to boost recruitment numbers,” said Universities New Zealand chair Derek McCormack. “These include working on ways to make an academic career more attractive to those already in the sector as well as those from outside the sector, including academics and professionals overseas.”

However, the report also concludes that the situation can only be truly resolved if New Zealand universities take action now to address these workforce problems. It also recommends changes be made within the tertiary education funding and the policy structure.
I'm pretty skeptical, as you might have guessed given the author of the report and that the report's commissioner would have a reasonable interest in a particular result being found.

I'm not about to reverse engineer their figures. But a few things strike me:
  • 2008 was probably a local maximum in tertiary participation. There's no way we exceed those rates absent some future Labour government going beyond where even Clark pushed things.
  • National's policy is toward capped enrolments, reducing the number of adult ed folks at university, and more kids going into trades. Projections of increased student numbers based on continued high proportions of 25-40 year olds at university would be contingent on a change in government. Projections of increased student numbers based on increases in the participation rate of 15-24 year olds would be similarly contingent on a large change from current government policy.
  • BERL's Variant A seems most plausible: lower participation rates for those over 25, no change in participation rates for those 15-24. But I'd have taken this as the mid-point projection rather than the base from which to build higher projections. I'd worry a fair bit more about downside domestic participation rates with shifts over to trades. And even this variant's projection depends on over a thirty percent increase in international student numbers over 2008.
I also find it a bit odd that their recommendations focus a lot on building websites to help academics plan their careers as means of improving retention while saying nothing about encouraging the trends towards paying salaries that vary with market demand.

I'd be surprised if they were far out in their estimates of staff attrition through retirement. But I'd be nervous about basing any university financial planning on the estimates of student numbers.

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