There was a story in The Australian newspaper last week warning that universities faced a “looming staff shortage” as thousands of academics approach retirement and that widespread dissatisfaction with high workloads and the corporate management culture would mean that there wouldn’t be enough new blood to replace them. (Here’s a link to the article.)
It sounds convincing enough, but – at least in mathematics – it just doesn’t seem to gel with what we actually see on a day to day basis, either at UWA or elsewhere. With a couple of exceptions, it seems that most Australian universities are still reducing staff in mathematics departments, and actively welcome retirements rather than worry about replacing them. Certainly our department has shrunk more or less monotonically for more than 20 years, and there are no signs that it has bottomed out. And of course there are well known examples like Flinders, which was rather embarrassed when Terry Tao won the Fields Medal and the media descended on his alma mater only to discover that they had essentially shut down all higher-level maths.
Meanwhile, despite the constantly deteriorating conditions, there seems to be no shortage of really good applicants for the occasional positions that come up, especially in Pure Mathematics. I personally know several really first-rate young pure mathematicians currently on fixed-term research-only positions who are searching, with varying degrees of desperation, for any continuing position (where “continuing” means “not fixed term” – the word “tenure” in Australia no longer has any connotations of job security or permanency because anyone can be fired at any time simply on financial grounds) and several more who have simply given up.
Perhaps this is unique to mathematics and other disciplines really are finding a looming staff shortage? (But here again, obviously the University of Melbourne is not too concerned, given that they’re busily trying to get rid of more than 200 staff, though not all are academics.)
So what gives?
[Update (9 October): See Terry Tao’s recent post on the “Maths in Australia” blog about the new AMSI director writing to Victoria University, one of the universities that is proposing further cuts in maths]