The head of the secondary teachers' union has claimed teachers deserve a bigger pay rise than police because nobody is queuing up to be a teacher - but Herald inquiries have found the claim does not stack up.

Universities have reported significant increases in the numbers applying to become secondary teachers over the past two years, which most attributed to the recession prompting people to retrain in areas such as teaching because of job security.

Most schools of education have had at least double the number of applicants for the spaces available. This year, Auckland University had 905 applications for the 340 places available.

Post Primary Teachers' Association president Kate Gainsford made her "no queues" claim after Finance Minister Bill English said the union needed to explain to nurses, civil servants, police and doctors why teachers deserved double the increase they had settled for.

The salaries of nurses, police and teachers are usually comparable.

Ms Gainsford's response was that there was a queue wanting to become police officers. "There is no queue for people wanting to become secondary school teachers. That is the problem, and we don't want that to become a crisis."

Victoria University had 266 applicants for 157 places - about 25 per cent more than usual - and Auckland University of Technology could take only about half the applicants for its 33 places.

Waikato University turned away about half the applicants for its 180 places and Otago has reported the largest number of applicants in its history.

The dean of Waikato's School of Education, Alister Jones, said the course was now quite competitive. "People are seeing it as a viable alternative."

However, he said, universities were unable to make the most of the boom because a new Government funding policy meant numbers had to be limited.

Waikato cut back from 200 students last year to 180 and Massey University is cutting from 200 this year to 90.

Ms Gainsford said a recession-fed boom in student teacher numbers would be short term.

The only way to prevent a "boom and bust" cycle was to improve pay and conditions to ensure a stable supply of teachers and ward off aggressive poaching from overseas.

She believed a 4 per cent rise was a moderate request, saying police had also secured other conditions, but the Government was refusing to consider measures to address teacher workload.

Ministry of Education spokeswoman Fiona McTavish said that while there were shortages in some subject areas - such as Maori - there were only 71 vacancies at the start of 2010 compared with 149 the previous year.

Fewer overseas-trained teachers and new graduates were taken on this year, indicating lower staff turnover. The number of first-year teachers with permanent jobs in schools had dropped from 968 in 2003 to 656 in 2010.

Other unions rejected Mr English's claim that it would be unfair to give the teachers a big rise when nurses and police had settled for 1.5 to 2 per cent.

Glenda Alexander, from the Nurses' Organisation, said her union would be pleased if the teachers got their 4 per cent. "Naturally people will say, 'Oh, they got this and we only got that.' But we value the work teachers do and if they move ahead, it helps us move ahead."

Public Service Association national secretary Richard Wagstaff said Mr English's claim that he had to "keep the faith" with those given 1.5 to 2 per cent increases was misplaced, given that other workers were being offered zero.

PAY COMPARISONS

Secondary teachers

*Settlement: Seeking 4 per cent. Government offer of 1 per cent, plus 1.5 per cent over two years.
*Starting pay: $45,653.
*After five years: $58,044.
*Top salary: $68,980.
*Salary boosters: $4000 for each 'unit' of extra responsibilities, plus $1000 middle/senior management allowances. About half of all teachers get these.

Police

*Settlement: $1000 lump payment in July and 1.5 per cent increase in July next year.
*Training: 19-week course at Royal Police College. Pay rate: $34,962.05.
*Starting pay: $51,148.
*After five years: $56,986.
*After 20 years (top): $74,494.

* All figures are base salary figures.