News - September 12, 2013

The bigger the better?

Rob Ramaker

The university is growing fast. So fast that it is in danger of losing its highly praised small-scale character. How much truth is there in this? And what will Wageningen’s future be like if students continue to come in droves? ‘We would rather not grow much more.’

There were so many students following the introduction for Nutrition and Health this year that for the first time they filled the large lecture hall in the Forum to capacity. There are currently 185 first years. Programme director Rolf Marteijn can hardly believe it: ‘We are now the largest biomedical degree programme in the Netherlands, not counting medicine.’ And this in spite of the fact that the programme was already bursting at the seams when it had 135 first years. So the coming year is going to pose an enormous challenge. But a one-off one because after that an admissions limit will be imposed on Nutrition and Health. ‘We have joined the big boys now,’ says Marteijn, ‘so we share their problems too.’ Wageningen University has grown exponentially in the last decade. Around the turn of the century student numbers reached an all-time low, with only 4000 students. Numbers have doubled since then and the university now has about 8000 students. Most of that growth has taken place in the last six years, with a historic peak being reached this year, partly thanks to the looming abolition of the basic grant. The increase means 1400 new Bachelor’s students and 700 Master’s students, announced board chair Dijkhuizen proudly during the opening of the academic year. Compared with other Dutch universities, Wageningen is still the baby of the family, but it is fast catching up with the Technical University of Eindhoven. Next year Wageningen may no longer be the Netherlands’ smallest university.

Less intensive
The lion’s share of the growth in the coming academic year will be in a handful of degree programmes which are going to have their hands full. Take the BSc in Food Technology, for instance, which has grown from 78 to 106 first years, with similar growth in the three related MSc programmes. ‘At present this doesn’t pose any insurmountable difficulties,’ says programme director Ralf Hartemijnk, ‘but it does demand a lot more from the chair groups. More supervision, more equipment and more creativity.’ Other degree programmes experiencing a growth spurt are taking on extra student assistants and temporary staff. The workload is also increasing for teachers and study advisors. Under these circumstances it is tempting to make the programme less intensive and plan more lectures and fewer seminars. Or to have more students per teacher and fewer open questions in exams. But the programme directors are dead against that. On principle, they aim to provide teaching exactly as described in the course guide. Cutting corners on quality is out of the question. At the moment it is still feasible to keep this up but Hartemink thinks the really tough problems are still to come: ‘The biggest bottleneck surrounds provision for

Join the big boys or stick to small scale

final theses. We’ll be in a fix next year in that area.’ He is doubtful, for example, whether laboratories have enough supervisors or space to cope with this wave of students. Marteijn of Nutrition and Health sees trouble ahead too. Expensive additional equipment will have to be bought for specialist courses, for example. And expertise in highly specialized subjects is not easy to hire in on a temporary basis. ‘Sometimes there is just one specialist with certain knowledge and you cannot duplicate that.’ The university’s research policy does not help either: more and more university teachers are on the tenure track programme, as a result of which they focus strongly on research rather than teaching.

It is already more crowded in the buildings. Teachers are noticing that it can be hard to find rooms, or their classes are inconveniently spread across several buildings. Another bottleneck is the number of computers available for independent study. The student council has been warning of a shortage of space since 2011. In a recent report they flagged up shortage of private study rooms, PC rooms and labs and lecture rooms. The university does not consider it justified to talk of shortage of space. ‘University-wide there is enough teaching accommodation,’ says Fred Jonker, policy officer for information facilities, ‘only the space is not always available in all the forms the lecturers would like.’ Jonker aims at an efficient use of the space, with rooms in use for 70 percent of the time. This is quite intensive and means he cannot always offer teachers the planning they have in mind. He understands that this is inconvenient but he  

Perhaps numbers will go down in the long term because you are not delivering quality?

also notes that in practice they are always able to find a solution. In what he calls ‘the grey circuit’, for instance, with teaching taking place outside the officially designated rooms. Jonker does admit that student numbers have outstripped the building plans. ‘The plans for the campus are based on a student population of 7500. We have exceeded that.’ The chief consequence of this is a shortage of rooms for group work and computer rooms. The ones in the buildings at De Dreijen are therefore being kept in use for longer. Thought is currently being given to how to cope with further growth. ‘There are various possible scenarios for this,’ says Jonker, ‘but we want to wait a bit to see how Orion works out in practice.’ He realizes that many solutions are controversial. There is a lot of opposition among students to evening exams, while teachers are not very receptive to the advice to adjust their teaching methods so that they need less space. ‘I haven’t heard more new building mentioned as a solution yet,’ says Jonker, ‘solutions are being looked for within the existing buildings.’ This cautiousness is related to the awareness that the growth will stop at some point. ‘We may well go on growing for five to ten years,’ says Jonker, ‘but demographically speaking, it is not realistic that we’ll still be growing in 15 years’ time.’ Be that as it may, director of the Food Technology programme Hartemink predicts, ‘alas’, that the growth will not stop any time soon. ‘That is speculation of course, but I base it on the huge turnout at open days in recent years. And some of those students in the fourth and fifth years of high school will come.’ His programme also maintains its uniqueness and popularity across Europe. But if student numbers were to increase greatly again, the programme would really burst at the seams. ‘So we would rather not grow anymore.’ The same goes for other growing programmes. There will not be too many problems this year and some even have room for further growth, but the ceiling is in sight. Animal Sciences has attracted about 130 BSc students this year, as opposed to 86 last year. ‘To be honest, we think the programme should stabilize at 120-125 students,’ says programme director René Kwakkel. Molecular Sciences is also successful with 60 new BSc students. They would be happy to attract the same number every year and do not want a big increase.  

Student numbers have almost doubled since the start of Wageningen UR (1998 = 100%): from 4148 in 1998 to 7933 in 2012. The number of foreign students has increased almost fivefold, from 407 in 1998 to 2016 in 2012
Student numbers have almost doubled since the start of Wageningen UR (1998 = 100%): from 4148 in 1998 to 7933 in 2012. The number of foreign students has increased almost fivefold, from 407 in 1998 to 2016 in 2012

Big boys

If we take a look beyond Wageningen these problems suddenly seem relatively minor. Waiting lists for accommodation are still comparatively short in Wageningen, and rents reasonably affordable. While the Wageningen student council was upset about the introduction of a few evening exams, in many cities there are even evening classes. Wageningen is not doing badly if you consider that 185 first years in Nutrition and Health is peanuts compared to the really big degree programmes elsewhere – in subjects such as Law, Communication Sciences, Medicine and Psychology. In these places the student-teacher ratio inevitably goes up and the number of contact hours goes down. ‘The main question,’ says Marjolijn Coppens, director of the Biology programme, ‘is do we want to get like that?’ To answer that question the education institute and the department of Education Research and Innovation set up a working group on student numbers. The group includes people from human resources, housing, education and also some students. ‘We look at the consequences of the growth for the organization as a whole,’ says Coppens, who chairs the group. ‘And we also provide the executive board with advice, as part of the basis for its policy.’ So the working group does not make any decisions itself, but sets out several scenarios for the future. According to Coppens, the university faces a decision about its principles on this point. It could choose to continue growing and join the big boys, or it could opt for small scale by pursuing a policy that would stabilize student numbers. ‘Joining the big boys’ would be paradoxical for Wageningen University, which attracts many students precisely because it is small-scale and offers intensive teaching. The Study Guide which has sung the praises of Wageningen BSc courses for years, was very explicit about this last year: ‘In recent years [WU] has maintained a perfect mix of appealing, small-scale degree programmes (on average 55 first years per programme), intensive supervision and good facilities.’ And ‘… a university on a human scale offering a compact range of programmes and manageable student numbers stands more chance of providing quality.’ Coppens thinks that further growth without taking any special steps to cope with it would be dangerous: ‘Moving away from small classes and many contact hours has consequences. Perhaps numbers will go down in the long term because you are not delivering quality?’

But if you opt for small scale, you face the question of how to stabilize student numbers. Setting an admissions limit for more programmes? Not necessarily, says Coppens. ‘You can also change the way you provide information on programmes,’ she suggests, ‘or adapt your admissions policy.’ One example would be the ‘matching’ principle which is going to be applied soon. This entails the university giving advice based on a questionnaire filled in by high school students, as well as a campus visit on open days. If you want to keep your programmes small, you have to make this matching stricter. Coppens: ‘For Biology, for instance, you could look whether students are good at science subjects and if not, advise them to choose a different programme.’ In any case Coppens feels it is important for a well thought-out decision to be made about scale. Doing nothing means the decision gets made for you. The executive board, too, seems to be aware of the tension between scale and quality. Apart from student numbers, board chair Dijkhuizen also had praise in his speech at the opening of the academic year for admissions limits as a way of preserving quality. Too late for that for Rolf Marteijn this year. He will just have to cope with his 185 first years. ‘We are very curious how it will go. We’ll just have to roll up our sleeves and go for it.