Vital signs restored, but HE emerges from COVID with a new face

A forensic examination of key trends across the sector indicates that the HE sector has largely been restored to pre-pandemic levels – but with a range of new characteristics.

Professor Andrew Norton is a national resource for all interested in HE policy – no one knows more than he about where the system is now and why it is as is.

The sixth edition of his Mapping Australian Higher Education is an indispensable guide to the stats and circumstances of the system post pandemic, drawing together key statistics from a huge range of sources to tell a story of the trends shaping the sector.

The new guide shows that the vital signs of the sector are restored, but with a new face. While student and workforce levels are returning, the sector faces a significantly lower number of casuals, higher undergraduate attrition rates, significant mental health issues amongst students, a decline in the research workforce and a dip in public confidence.

Key findings in this week’s new edition include:


  • overall casual headcount dropped 20% 2019-21
  • there are more academics 40 or younger with fixed-term contracts than in continuing employment
  • 72% FTE academic casuals are employed at the most junior, Level A, scale. In comparison, 17% of continuing and fixed term academics are on the bottom grade
  • continuing and fixed-term numbers increased ’21-’22 to be one per cent below 2019
  • in 2021 nearly half the people in the Bureau of Stats category “university lecturers and tutors” were migrants
  • nearly three quarters of academic staff held a PhD in ‘21
  • assumptions that professional staff “are a growing share” of the university workforce are wrong. The 57% FTE share of permanent and fixed-term workers has been stable for 33 years, even with Covid cuts


  • There were 45,000 continuing and fixed term academics with research, and teaching and research roles in 2021, 4% down on ‘20. There were another 2,500 non-academic research staff. Research-only staff were 36% of the total, tripling since ’92
  • There were another 64,800 research students (36% international students). In 2020 postgrads accounted for 55% of “person years of effort”
  • Group of Eight universities accounted for 60% of research expenditure in 2020 and nearly half of “research human resources” – their dominance is due to their presence in expensive research fields, health, science and engineering
  • 32% of research spending was on health and medicine in 2020, with other sciences, engineering and IR accounting for a further 43%
  • There were 86,000 journal articles with one or more Australian affiliated author in ’22, double 2011
  • In 2020 spending on basic research was at the 2012 level


  • ’21 teaching income was $23.5bn, 61 per cent of all public university revenue
  • total HELP debt was $67.8bn in June ’22 of which the Commonwealth expects to be repaid $47.2bn
  • in 2020 universities spent $12.7bn on research, with $7bn identified from public and private sources, as to where the other $5.7bn came from, “surpluses on teaching are the only possible source.”


  • A decline in the number of students receiving income support such as Austudy or Abstudy – part of a longer term trend that has resumed after a brief COVID interruption. The availability of many job opportunities and the low rates of student support benefits may mean that some students choose work over benefit-funded study.
  • Half of the one in five undergraduates who seriously considered leaving their institution in 2022 gave ‘health or stress’ as a reason – underlining the impact of mental health issues on attrition and student success
  • 85% of tertiary students were employed in August 2022 and two-thirds of them worked full time. The remaining third who worked part-time earned a median wage of $1,065 per week.
  • Domestic student course completions have more than doubled since 1989 – but at the expense of long term attrition, as institutions pursuing growth enrolled a greater number of students less suited to academic success. While completions are at a record high, attrition is also up. Allowing a nine-year window for course completion, 24.6% of students who enrolled in a Bachelor degree in 2013 left without completing a degree. 10% of students drop out have studies three years or more

Public confidence in universities dropped almost 10% between 2019 and 2023 to 69% – potentially reflecting negative publicity over pay issues, targeting of universities during culture wars, student contribution increases and/or reduced student satisfaction during COVID.

While this rate is relatively high, it is a significant trend given the huge profile of university experts during the pandemic and aligns with the Interim Accord’s suggestion that the sector needs to find new and better ways to engage the electorate if it is to harvest more government funding.



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