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]

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I suggest that the ‘looming staff shortage’ applies to areas other than mathematics. The ‘monotonic trend’ in the shrinkage of your department reflects the general decline in students specialising in mathematics (see, for example, the review of the state of mathematical sciences in Australia at http://www.review.ms.unimelb.edu.au/Report.html).

My guess is that a prospective university student, faced with the size of their potential HECS debt, weighs up their job prospects much more than was the case 20 years ago. They can see for themselves that there are few jobs for mathematicians as such. Almost invariably the smiling faces in the university prospectuses for new mathematics students belong to graduates who are not working as mathematicians. It’s quite natural for a prospective student to think that if they’re going to end up as an actuary, or programmer, or in some other field, they should cut to the chase and study that field directly.

Of course, there will always be a few who will study mathematics because that’s what they really want to do (and they can’t imagine doing anything else). Unfortunately, I suspect that their number is much less than would sustain the current staffing levels.

By chance I happen to have the last 20-years data for majors in Mathematics and Statistics at UWA and these seem to show a relatively consistent, albeit fairly low, number of majors in Maths/Stats over this time period. Maybe even then students only took Maths if they were personally interested in it, perhaps alongside a second major that might “pay the bills”.

Personally I can see two factors contributing to our continuing decline:

Firstly, we have had seemingly endless cuts in per-student funding with the lack of indexation taking an increasing toll each year. With the latest cut, and after the central University and Faculty overheads are taken off, the Department now receive less than $400 per student per class. So for example, my 14-student 3rd year class generates less than $6000 income in total. Given that the Department must pay academic salaries, secretarial salaries, buy equipment and supplies etc. you can see that these classes run at a massive loss. In order to break even and keep a teaching load similar to other “research-intensive” universities, we would need classes to average about 150 students.

Secondly, other Departments and Faculties, also reeling under sustained budget cuts and desperately trying to increase their total student load quickly realize that reducing the required mathematical content in their degrees means that they can potentially get more of each student. At the extreme, they simply decide to “teach their own maths” on the grounds that they can then use the profit to subsidise their own small high-level units.

Regardless of their rhetoric (“clever country” or “education revolution”) neither party seems willing to either fund higher education comparably to similar countries OR take the unpopular step of completely deregulating fees, and so I can’t see any light at the end of the tunnel here.

Readers of this post might also be interested in the following opinion piece (not specific to mathematics):

http://newmatilda.com/2009/11/24/academia-no-longer-smart-choice

This topic has come upon again in The Australian: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/academics-left-off-skills-list-despite-shortage/story-e6frgcjx-1225871255812 . Most interestingly, it says that “there were no key areas where any substantial sustained surplus was expected”. So I wonder whether mathematics isn’t considered a ‘key area’, or whether it is seriously believed that even mathematics will experience a shortage of qualified academics in the near future… somehow I doubt that it is the latter.

Yes, I noticed that. Again, the world they talk about – staff shortages etc – seems entirely remote from the world we are experiencing.

At UWA nearly every Faculty (especially ours) is mired in debt and desperately trying to shed staff.

Meanwhile many of our “baby boomers” show no signs of retiring with several of them exploiting the fact that they can’t be made to retire based on their age and we don’t (yet) have any performance-based criteria that can force them out.