News - February 11, 2016

There is pressure on the number of available thesis places

Rob Ramaker

Growing numbers at the university mean more students than ever before are simultaneously working on their thesis. This is putting pressure on freedom of choice, flexibility and possibly even quality.

Imagine you are a scientist. You get an email from an enthusiastic student who wants their graduation project to be on your subject. That is not only flattering, it also gives you two free hands and a brain. So what do you reply? In the case of Microbiology researchers, the answer is increasingly ‘No, thank you.’ That is because they do not have enough room. Students are applying for thesis positions in ever increasing numbers and there is no sign of a stop to that trend.

Ever since the 2006-2007 academic year, Wageningen University has been expanding fast. While 577 first-years started on their Bachelor's degree back then, the equivalent last September was 1469. The intake for Master’s degrees grew from 983 to 2160 students. The programmes experiencing the biggest growth are Biotechnology, Nutrition and Food. This growth is set to continue in the years ahead (up to 2020). The interest is clear from the huge turnout for open days, which are packed.

All of those new students will need to produce a ‘masterpiece’ in the coming years: a Master’s thesis, which takes at least six months. They nearly always do this with a Wageningen chair group, and always with a Wageningen supervisor. The Bachelor’s degree also ends with a thesis, but that only takes three to four months and students usually get most of the information from books. A couple of programmes require them to do their own experiments.

Second choice

The ever growing numbers of students are putting increasing pressure on this system. ‘Some chair groups are full,’ says Wilko van Loon, the Molecular Life Sciences programme director. ‘Students have to look round more and may end up with their second choice.’ His own Master’s programme and the ‘adjacent’ Biotechnology programme have grown considerably. That already affects students’ freedom of choice sometimes; they are unable to pick their preferred group or subject. Meanwhile, departments that appeal less to students’ interests still have room.

Although the problems are currently manageable, programme directors are already getting nervous about the challenges in the years ahead. ‘A major worry is how we can continue to guarantee the quality of the thesis,’ says Ralf Hartemink, Food Technology programme director. With 189 new students (68 in 2006), Food Technology is the second largest Master's programme. These are already challenging numbers, says Hartemink, and soon 70 extra students will be added from the Bachelor’s, while you also have to allow for a possible increase in the number of international students. ‘We’re still coping at the moment; the first major problems will be in two years’ time.’ The Human Nutrition department also expects student numbers to be problematic by then.

Tiny van Boekel, director of the Education Institute, acknowledges the problems. ‘We see that the research capacity is not growing in line with the numbers in education. The number of PhD projects has fallen slightly while these tend to be linked to the undergraduate thesis projects, certainly in the natural science groups.’ Not only is it getting harder to find staff to act as supervisors, there are also more people scrambling for the available labs and desks. Many chair groups have had to give up space recently or are planning to do so. The move from the Dreijen to campus is one such example. Microbiology, which is already turning down thesis students, will have even fewer thesis workspaces in the new Helix building.

It is good to see a debate starting about how best to cope with the growth, says rector Arthur Mol. He does not see any need to intervene as yet. A possible measure would be to take on more PhD candidates and increase supervision capacity in that way. ‘That costs about 200,000 euros per PhD candidate so we can’t just do that.’ Furthermore, the chair groups already get compensation for each thesis student they have, so the responsibility for arranging supervision lies primarily with them. However, there is a working group looking at whether the tenure track programme should deal more flexibly with people who spend a lot of time on teaching.

Mol has not yet heard about a lack of lab or desk space for thesis students. He does see a central role for the university in that area. ‘Of course you can’t be taking on students for a Master’s programme when you don’t have proper thesis workspaces for them.’

Strict agreements

In practice, both Mole and Van Boekel see a lot being done to cope with the growth (see box). Strict agreements are increasingly being made with students and recorded in thesis contracts, for example setting a firm submission deadline and a maximum to the time in the lab. It is becoming increasingly difficult to deviate from that. ‘Researchers are becoming ever more creative,’ says Van Boekel, ‘They always find ways to make efficiency gains.’

People are also looking beyond the university gates. The DLO institutes are a logical starting point but students do still need to do fundamental research. Van Boekel: ‘You can’t have students working on something that needs to deliver results in three months’ time.’

Programme director Hartemink would also be happy for students to do their thesis at Food & Biobased Research or NIZO Food Research, for instance. ‘But they are just a drop in the ocean.’ At most companies, research is either not sufficiently academic or has to remain confidential.

Mol understands the concerns but he points to the difficulty in predicting how the growth will continue. According to Mol, developments take place so fast that policymakers are continually being taken by surprise, both by the new developments and by the creativity of employees. ‘The smartest option is just to continue to keep a close eye on things. I stopped making rigid plans long ago.’

Students in a circle

In recent years the university has had more and more ‘thesis circles’ in which thesis students comment on one another’s written work under the guidance of experienced researchers. That is because writing the thesis up is often what causes delays. These circles are not about treating students like schoolchildren to increase efficiency, says Marian Vermue, a ‘circle leader’ in the Bioprocess Technology group. ‘I think students actually learn more from looking at one another’s work.’