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Declining staff-to-student ratios reveal sorry state of higher ed



The Hollywood image of the black-robed university professor tutoring a handful of students is just a fantasy. The staff-to-student ratios in Australia’s universities of the early 1990s, when there was one academic for every 14 students, now seem like a pipe dream. By 2012, when the federal government first started reporting on staff-to-student ratios in universities, there was one academic for every 20 students. The most recent data, from 2021, shows that figure had increased to 23. As Australian students return for the new academic year, it will surely come as no surprise to find that ratio has further worsened.

Funding cuts across the university sector has impacted the number of academic and support staff employed, which in turn has had a direct effect on staff-to-student ratios. The cuts also have repercussions for university infrastructure and the quality and breadth of the curriculum taught. All of this impacts the student experience, and makes it more challenging for many students to fully engage with academics.

Of the 42 public and private Australian universities listed in the federal government’s statistics, half had staff-to-student ratios that were even worse than that average of 23. Victoria University had one academic for every 31.9 students, while Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory had one academic for every 36.9 students. At the other end of the spectrum, specialist universities like the University of Divinity had one academic for every six students.

The 2024 edition of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings shows that all Australian universities in the top 200 had fallen down the academic ladder compared to the previous year. The University of Melbourne, Australia’s highest ranked university, fell three places from 34th to 37th. Monash University slipped 10 places from 44th to 54th. The University of Sydney fell six places to rank 60th.

Higher education observers say that this slide in Australian university rankings can be attributed to worsening staff-to-student ratios as well as a cuts to research funding. In the Times Higher Education rankings looking specifically at staff-to-student ratios, Japan dominates the list, with 33 universities in the top 100 (although some are specialist medical institutions). The US comes second with 25 universities. The rest of the top 100 features universities from France, South Korea, India and China. No Australian university is listed in the top 100.

Deteriorating academic-to-student ratios have come at a time of widespread funding cuts to universities. A report released last year by the Australian Institute’s Centre for Future Works found that federal government funding for universities (excluding HELP) had fallen from 0.9 per cent of GDP in 1995 to 0.6 per cent in 2021.

‘A decline of 0.3 percentage points may sound small, but that reduction in funding was equivalent to $6.5 billion in foregone funding in 2021,’ the report said. ‘If federal support had maintained the same size relative to Australia’s economy, Commonwealth funding for universities would be almost 50 per cent greater today.’


'Even if the recommendations are adopted, it appears that poor academic-to-student ratios will not improve anytime soon. In the meantime, we need reliable research on the impact of these worsening ratios and increasing class sizes on students’ learning outcomes.'


Almost three in four Australians who were surveyed for the report said they were concerned about the decline in government funding for public universities over the past decade.

The worsening staff-to-student ratios and funding cuts not surprisingly also coincide with academic and professional job cuts. Last year, Victoria University called for voluntary redundancies of about 300 academic and professional staff. In 2020, the university reduced staff numbers by almost 12 per cent. The Australian Catholic University also cut staff numbers in 2023, announcing that more than 110 full-time jobs would go.

Casuals, who do up to 80 per cent of undergraduate teaching, have been hit hard by employment cuts. Government statistics show there was a 15 per cent drop in the number of equivalent full-time casuals employed between 2020 and 2021, with only marginal increases in 2022.

The story of staff-to-student ratios gets gloomier when you consider that government statistics do not tell the whole story. While it generally follows that the ratios are indicative of class sizes, universities do not publish these figures. There is no information on class sizes in faculties, departments and in individual subjects. Students contemplating going to university have no idea how big face-to-face and online classes are.

Some universities, like the University of South Australia, provide generic information: ‘Class sizes at UniSA vary from degree to degree, and even between your individual courses,’ the university’s website says. ‘Generally, for one course, you will attend a lecture and then a related class, such as a tutorial, workshop or computer practical. Tutorial rooms and computer rooms are usually a maximum of 30 students, while lecture theatres may be able to seat hundreds of students.’

Peter Woelert, a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Graduate School of Education, says students should know what class sizes to expect before they enrol at university. In a 2021 piece he wrote for The Conversation, he explained students needed to know if class sizes could impact their ‘learning outcomes and levels of satisfaction’.

‘Some studies suggest student outcomes get worse as classes at universities get larger,’ Dr Woelert wrote. ‘Other studies paint a more complex picture. These suggest the effect of increasing class size on students’ achievement differs substantially between academic disciplines. It also depends on student demographics.’

Over my years of reporting on universities, including writing a column on higher education for The Age, casuals have told me how their class sizes have increased. Earlier this century, some used to teach classes with 15 students or fewer; now classes often have 20 to 25 students or more, and there may not be sufficient resources to support that number (for example, in practical writing classes, many students have to bring their own laptops rather than rely on the university’s computers).

Increasing class sizes, tutors say, have put extra pressure on them to mark assignments on time, and the number of student emails they need to respond to can be overwhelming. The tutors cite difficulties in getting to know their students and mentoring them in meaningful ways. Larger class sizes make it challenging to provide students with detailed and individualised feedback.

While empirical research on the relationship between students’ learning outcomes, satisfaction and class size remains inconclusive, there is no doubt that in larger class sizes students have less individual interaction with their lecturers or tutors, and fewer opportunities to ask questions, contribute to group discussions and explore ideas. 

In their 2024-25 pre-budget submission, Universities Australia (UA), the peak body for the university sector, pointed out the dangers of declining investment in the higher education sector. For example, cutting funding to research and development ‘undermines the nation’s ability to innovate and generate new ideas and ways of living and working to drive economic and productivity growth.’ Instead, ‘at a time when Australia desperately needs more of what the higher education sector does for the nation, universities are more financially vulnerable than at any other time in history.’

UA’s submission has 11 recommendations including increasing financial support for students and improving government investment in research and development to at least the OECD average of 0.65 per cent of GDP. Even if the recommendations are adopted, it appears that poor academic-to-student ratios will not improve anytime soon. In the meantime, we need reliable research on the impact of these worsening ratios and increasing class sizes on students’ learning outcomes.

Investing in Australia’s university system is essential to supporting Australia as it faces the challenges and opportunities in the decades ahead. Such investment will flow through to improved staffing ratios, greater curriculum innovation, improved student experience and learning outcomes, enhanced competitiveness internationally in research, and more scope in applying that research to generate economic and social benefit for Australia.




Dr Erica Cervini is a freelance journalist and sessional academic.

Main image: (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Erica Cervini, Universities, Staff, Students, Academics, Rankings



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Existing comments

I have worked as a tutor in Queensland and Victoria. Class sizes keep growing and Unis still expect you to have adequate contact with students. Unis aren’t employing more tutors so students miss out on contact with tutors and tutors are under increasing pressure. Yet, Monash Uni spends lavishly on a farewell to it vice-chancellor- as reported in The Age.

Jo | 08 March 2024  

Thank you Dr Cervini for this thorough but troubling analysis of Higher Education.
The world of higher learning...a foundation of knowledge to challenge injustice, expand humanistic values, solve world problems, is being undermined in the name of capitalism. Much less the impact for students who are thus so limited in access to their teachers, and thus struggle. The impact and reliance upon casual teachers, with low pay and poor conditions is building a house of cards.
Maybe a collapse is the only way to transform the sector. I hope Universities and Government see seense before that.

Jennifer Perlstein | 08 March 2024