ABC Fact Check | 30 August 2013
An advertisement by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) says there are almost twice as many university students per teacher now than a generation ago.
“In just one generation university class sizes have almost doubled due to chronic underfunding,” the union ad claims.
The ad, released on August 12 as a part of the union’s $1 million Uni Cuts, Dumb Cuts campaign, calls on viewers to “vote smart” and “vote Greens in the Senate”.
- The claim: The amount of university students in a one-teacher classroom has almost doubled since 1990.
- The verdict: The claim is correct. There are almost twice as many students per teacher now than there were in the 1990s.
The number of students per teacher in Australian universities
Different methods for calculating student-teacher numbers
ABC Fact Check investigated figures on student-to-staff ratios in the higher education sector from two sources.
For the years 1990 to 2008, ABC Fact Check analysed figures from Universities Australia, a research organisation representing Australia’s 39 universities.
These figures compared the annual numbers of academic teachers with the numbers of full-time students.
For 2009 to 2012, ABC Fact Check used figures from the Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science Research and Tertiary Education.
These figures exclude research students and only count staff engaged in teaching and research.
Neither organisation has consistent data covering the whole period.
Given the differences in data-gathering methodologies, ABC Fact Check follows academic practice in using a margin of error of one person per teacher.
This does not affect ABC Fact Check’s verdict.
The rise in student numbers
ABC Fact Check calculated there were 13 students for every teacher in 1990. The number rose to 19 in 2000 and 24 in 2012.
Over that 22-year period the number of university students for every teacher almost doubled.
Emeritus Professor Frank Larkins told ABC Fact Check university classrooms have grown dramatically in size since 1990.
Professor Larkins is the former Deputy Vice Chancellor at the LH Martin Institute, a research facility linked to The University of Melbourne.
He has published a book on Australian higher education policy and has written papers on academic staffing trends.
“Over a 20 year period it would be correct to say that student to staff ratios have almost doubled,” he said.
“It’s been partly offset by new media but the main imperative, face-to-face learning in class, has suffered dramatically.”
The National Tertiary Education Union is correct.