Australia is facing a shortfall crisis in the professions as well as the trades with the number of students starting undergraduate courses at university diving by more than 10,000 over the past four years. Employers are already finding it difficult to recruit new graduates from several of the professions, including accounting and engineering, while even IT firms expect to be facing a shortage in the next few years. Although there has been a huge rise in overall enrolments in Australian universities in recent years, this is mostly due to sharply increasing numbers of overseas students. More Australian students are also going on to postgraduate studies and the enrolment growth from these two groups has hidden the decline in commencing undergraduate numbers. Almost 166,300 Australian students began university courses in first semester 2001 but this fell by more than 1,000 the following year, dropped another 7,000 in 2003 and hit a low of 156,000 in the first semester of last year. A majority of the major disciplines all experienced declines in the commencing student cohort. 'The skills shortage is clearly not just in the traditional trades but in the professional areas as well,' said Monash University sociologist Dr Bob Birrell. 'This is one of the reasons why Australia is having to bring in huge numbers of overseas professionals.' Dr Birrell heads Monash University's Centre for Population and Urban Research and is undertaking an investigation into the fall-off in domestic undergraduate enrolments. He said the figures showed a serious disjunction between the training of professionals in the nation's universities and the demand from business and industry. To fill the growing gap between supply and demand, more than 62,000 migrant professionals arrived in Australia between 2001 and 2003, Dr Birrell said. The number had risen rapidly as overseas students obtained permanent residency that allowed them to stay on and work in Australia. This group was adding to the foreigners being recruited by employers desperate for trained professionals, he said. The association representing the engineering profession, Engineers Australia (EA), said that compared with other countries, Australia had a low rate of entry into and graduation from engineering faculties. The number of engineers graduating from university had remained static at about 5,000 over the past decade. 'While graduations have stagnated, each year engineering schools turn away 1,800 eligible students due to a lack of government-funded places,' an EA spokesman, Peter Taylor, said. Immigration Minister Senator Amanda Vanstone proposed that another 20,000 skilled migrants be admitted this year. This would push the overall net migration level to a record 140,000.