News - June 1, 2017

Growing pains at WUR

Roelof Kleis

Wageningen has a strong position on the market. Student numbers are going up every year. But that growth is taking its toll, suggest responses to a survey by Resource. Workloads are too heavy and the quality of the education is under pressure. ‘I feel the situation has become tenuous.’

illustration Pascal Tieman photos Sven Menschel

It is abundantly obvious that the campus is getting busier and busier. Lecture halls are full, all the work stations in the Forum are often occupied from early in the day, and the queues in the canteens are getting longer. But what are the implications of this for the education programme and the staff who work on it? Are these growing pains, and if so, how painful are they? To get an idea about that, Resource did a survey among full professors and programme coordinators in the chair groups (see box: The Survey).


For several years now, the biannual staff monitor has been revealing that staff are under serious pressure at work. That work pressure has a lot to do with the growth in student numbers, shows the Resource survey. The rising student numbers have increased the workload, professors and programme coordinators regularly have to spend extra time solving the problems caused by the growth, and the teaching and administration take up more time than they did a few years ago. Groups are getting bigger, it is harder to keep an overview, the preparation and logistics of lectures, group work, practicals and excursions are much more time-consuming, it is harder to find suitable teaching space, and grading papers takes up a lot more time.

The idea was that additional staff would be taken on to take the worst of the pressure off. But most chair groups don’t have the money for that and have to make do with the staff they have, and with the help of PhD candidates, student assistants or other temporary input. But not all members of staff are keen on teaching. After all, more teaching means less time for research, acquisition and writing articles.

Educational innovation

In response to the growth, many teachers and chair groups are shifting to other forms of education which are less labour-intensive. In practicals, instruction films are replacing explanations by the teacher. Group work is taking the place of individual assignments. Online course materials, video clips and e-learning are taking over parts of the teacher’s job. Students peer-review each other’s thesis chapters, relieving teachers of some of their time-consuming supervisory work. These changes and innovations are helpful but don’t get rid of the work pressure. What is more, the experience of the majority of the professors and coordinators questioned is that the changes are making the education less personal. And that is endangering Wageningen’s famous small groups and personal touch. Few of the respondents think this is affecting the quality of the education, though. But a clear warning can be heard from all sides: the limits are in sight.

Below are the responses to the main statements about workloads, educational innovation and educational quality, with a selection of the comments respondents made.


More students mean more work. That goes for lecturers, professors and other permanent staff, and to a lesser extent also for PhD candidates, suggest the responses to this and similar statements.

Statement: The growth in student numbers is affecting my workload


Michel Riksen, degree programme coordinator for Soil Physics and Land Use: ‘I see more and more colleagues working through the lunch hour and at home in the evenings to get everything done in time at peak periods. We want more staff but given the financial situation, that is not possible. Growth is a good thing but it’s got to stay manageable. You must make sure additional resource and staff keep pace with the growth. That doesn’t seem to be the case now. At some point you reach the limits.’

Rik Leemans, Professor of Environmental Systems Analysis: ‘The work pressure is extremely high now. But the amount of sick leave taken is low. That is because teachers are very loyal and they carry on coming in to teach, even if they are running a fever. If you ask me, we’ve got a tenuous situation on our hands now, with the possibility of a domino effect if one teacher drops out. Unfortunately, the budget does not allow for taking on extra staff. At the moment, PhD candidates help out on a regular basis, but they also have to finish off their theses within four years. ’

Hannie van der Honing, degree programme coordinator for Cell Biology: ‘Our student numbers have risen enormously, which means that all the practicals now have to be offered three times per period. So colleagues have to teach more often because we are trying to keep the student-teacher ratio more or less the same. It is also getting more difficult to timetable courses. To offer an additional series of practicals there has to be teaching space available. We are running up against the limits of what’s possible here too.’

Wageningen runs on its enthusiastic staff, but that is not sustainable

Ute Sass-Klaassen, degree programme coordinator for Forest Ecology and Forest Management: ‘ Wageningen University runs on its enthusiastic and motivated staff, but that is not sustainable. A lot of my colleagues have already gone beyond the limits of an acceptable workload. Not that all the work pressure comes from the teaching load. It is a combination of  an increasing teaching load, the research side with its restricted and competitive grant programmes, and the requirement to acquire more projects.’

Marcel Dicke, full professor of Entomology: ‘Staff are spending more time on education. That poses a challenge, but then education is our core activity. We should be happy about the rising student numbers. That is something we worked hard at for years, and now that is bearing fruit. We can be proud of that. The work pressure is certainly a problem, but that is mainly down to the large and rapidly increasing amount of administration the chair groups get landed with.’

Educational Innovation

A crisis makes people creative. Teachers and chair groups are making numerous changes in order to cope with the growth in student numbers, the survey reveals.

Statement: I am adapting the educational methods I use to cope with the rising student numbers.

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Tinka Murk, full professor of Marine Animal Ecology: ‘By introducing modern ways of delivering education and organizing processes smartly, you have more time left for the content of the classes and for coaching students. For the supervision of students writing their theses we have introduced thesis circles. And we’re pleased with those.’

Rachel van Ooteghem, degree programme coordinator for Biobased Chemistry and Technology: ‘We have added a preparatory assignment in which students go through a practical using ‘dummy data’. Students don’t have to carry out all the experiments themselves anymore. And that is a step backwards. If you do the experiment you update a logbook and pass on that information. But all the students do have to prepare the experiment, do the calculations, discuss it and write a report. We have also made templates for the report, which makes checking it faster. Then you can concentrate on the comparison of the theory with the data, rather than on the layout of the report.’

Carlijk Wentink, teacher and degree programme coordinator for Health and Society: ‘We have adapted our methods to make the teaching less labour-intensive and to cater for larger groups. Individual assignments, for example, have been turned into pair work or group work. I think it’s a pity that’s necessary: students should get the chance to do more individual assignments. We are working with peer feedback and making more use of student assistants to help with the grading and the supervision of work groups. We are also trying to include more multiple choice questions in our exams. We have set a limit to the number of thesis students and the number of supervisory sessions.’

We have invested in digitalizing parts of courses

Johan Verreth, full professor of Aquaculture and Fisheries: In the regular education programme we have invested a lot in digitalization and offering parts of courses online. Thesis topics which do not fit into an existing line of research are discouraged as much as possible, because they require extra input in the supervision. We share the final thesis projects with colleagues from Wageningen Research.’

Fons Debet, degree programme coordinator for Genetics: ‘The education has been made more extensive by using resources for students more efficiently through Blackboard. For practicals, information is passed on via instructional film clips rather than face-to-face by teachers. Less assistance is needed.’

Educational quality

Is growth happening at the expense of educational quality? The degree programme coordinators have a somewhat gloomier take on this than the professors, although a majority in both groups feels the quality has been kept up in the last couple of years.

Statement: The quality of the education has gone down in recent years.

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Eldert van Henten, full professor of Farm Technology: ‘The quality of our education is still being kept up. I have a feeling that we confuse educational quality with lots of contact hours and personal attention. That is a misunderstanding. Students need high quality attention, there is no question about that. But we shouldn’t pamper them. I think it will be to the benefit of our students’ development if they can develop more and faster into self-reliant people who can think for themselves.’

Roel Dijksma, degree programme coordinator for Hydrology and Quantitative Water Management:‘Thanks to the efforts, commitment and fanaticism of the teachers, we are still managing to keep up standards. That is obvious from the student evaluations too: the scores for courses have not gone down significantly over the years.’

Fred de Boer, degree programme coordinator for Resource Ecology: ‘Innovative educational methods are fine, and are necessary. But that cannot always make up for the loss of quality. We have won a prize for the best course at this university several times (and this year again), but I don’t think we’ll get it next year. There are several reasons for that, related to the increase in students, which leads to a lower rating for the course.’

Han Zuilhof, full professor of Organic Chemistry: ‘My education team is using a thousand and one new ways of optimizing both the workload and the quality they deliver. Still, you can’t help noticing that the calibre of the students has gone down. Our students are less well-trained and therefore not as good in the lab, and they have less experience of reporting than they had a few years ago.’

Standards have been maintained up to now, but we have reached the ceiling now

Jan van Kan, degree programme coordinator for Phytopathology: ‘Unfortunately it is often the case that you spend 80 percent of your time on the weakest 20 percent of students. It would be nice if we could get the best 20 percent of students doing even better by stretching them with more one-to-one interaction. But we don’t have enough time or attention to identify those positive exceptions and stimulate them.’

Edith Feskens, full professor of Nutrition and Health over the Lifecourse: ‘I think standards have been maintained up to now, but we have reached the ceiling now.’ 

Remco Uijlenhoet, full professor of  Hydrology and Quantitative Water Management: ‘I don’t think the quality of the education has suffered in recent years, partly thanks to the tremendous efforts and commitment of the staff. The average calibre of the students being admitted to the degree programmes is a cause of concern. Luckily there are still some highfliers among them but there are also a lot of middling students who require a disproportionate amount of attention. We need stricter student selection.’

The Survey

Resource sent a questionnaire to all the full professors and course coordinators in all 86 chair groups. The survey consisted of 22 statements and 4 open questions about the growth in student numbers and its consequences for education programmes and the teachers, staff and PhD candidates. One third of the professors and almost half of the degree programme coordinators filled in the survey. Taken as a whole, the responses paint a picture of the situation in 56 percent of the chair groups. The responses are representative for the five sciences groups, and therefore give a fair indication of the current situation. Some of the results are included in this account.