Organisation - September 9, 2010

A tight squeeze in Wageningen

Once again, the number of students finding their way to Wageningen has grown significantly. That means more students in the lecture halls, at the private study stations, in the societies and at the sports hall. Can the university actually cope with this growth?

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One thing is clear by now: the economic crisis will make the Netherlands smarter. Just like last year, once again young people are opting en masse to go to university. It seems the message has come home that an ailing labour market makes higher and higher demands of its workers. For Wageningen University too, this means a hefty growth rate of almost 12 percent.
But can the university cope with this kind of growth? In the last issue of Resource, we found that student accommodation has come under severe pressure. Just as important is the question of how educational facilities are bearing up. One problem facing every university is the financing. The minister of education pays universities per student. But that money is distributed over the whole study period, with the bulk of it coming at the end, when the student graduates. Uncontrolled growth can therefore create a cash flow problem for the academic departments.
This is not the case in Wageningen, though, says Wageningen UR spokesman Simon Vink. 'The executive board has decided to fund the chair groups in line with the actual developments in student numbers.' Of course, that puts temporary pressure on the budget, he adds. 'But luckily, Wageningen University is a financially sound organization.'
According to Vink, the university is also in a good position to keep educational facilities up to scratch. Firstly, thanks to the building of Orion, the new teaching building on the campus. If all goes to plan, Orion will be ready for use in January 2013. 'By September it will be in full swing', expects Vink. Until then, the university still has De Dreijen up its sleeve. The decision to close the teaching building there has been put on hold because the large lecture halls and labs in the Biotechnion and the maths and chemistry building are badly needed. Perhaps even after Orion is completed, if the growth spurt continues.
This set the tone, as it turned out, for our round of visits to university services and student societies: of course the growth spurt in student numbers calls for adjustments and expansions, but no insurmountable problems are expected in most areas. The student societies are downright delighted with it: 'at last we can organize a beer cantus.'
Animal Sciences on the up
The BSc in Animal Sciences has been a real magnet for new students this year. That brings some pressure with it, especially on staff. If the growth goes on, that may have consequences for the much-vaunted small-scale nature of Wageningen education.
Animal Sciences is one of the programmes that are growing fast. Registrations are not yet final, but the counter for next year is now at 130, compared to 88 last year. This means that Animal Sciences has overtaken Biology as the programme with the largest number of first years.
'Before the holiday we sent an urgent email to the professors because we needed more staff', says programme director René Kwakkel. 'Especially for 'Introduction to Animal Sciences', you need some extra supervision in the first period. This course is taught through problem-centred education, meaning that students visit workplaces and work in groups on themes coming from the field. 'In the past we could get by with ten teachers and twenty teaching assistants and student assistants. Now we already need fifteen teachers and twenty assistants.'
For subjects such as Cell biology, Mathematics and Chemistry, the probem of the large numbers is spread over several programmes, explains Kwakkel. There too, the input of staff plays a role, besides the allocation of big enough lecture halls and labs. 'That is a headache for the timetabler above all.'
Teachers will be busier, grading more papers for example. But Kwakkel sees possibilities for lightening that load, by setting more multiple choice questions, for example, instead of open questions, or by spreading the load over a number of teachers, each checking one or two questions.
If the growth goes on over the coming years, Kwakkel thinks more far-reaching steps will have to be taken. 'We might have to adapt the way we work. I can imagine that you might not be able to run a practical in which every student dissects an animal. But nowadays there are very nice CD-Roms for that.'
In the long term the education that is now student-centred and small-scale could become more large-scale, thinks Kwakkel. 'We are actually back at the level of 1982, when we had 120 first years. In those days, the teaching style was quite different, with more lectures.' You have to keep things in perspective, that's the message. 'At the VU university in Amsterdam, three hundred students in the lecture hall is quite usual. They think it strange if we say we have trouble dealing with so many students.'

Yoga in the meeting room
'It will be a tight squeeze in the fitness room this year', reckons the head of the Bongerd Sports Centre (SCB), Henri ten Klooster. But that is a temporary problem. It will all look different in a year's time. Literally different. The new building will be ready.
By new building, he means the extension to the front of the sport complex annoucned this spring. Ten Klooster got the green light from the executive board for a major extension. This marks the end of the 'investment stop' imposed after the laying down of the blue synthetic athletics track in 2006. Up to now, the Bongerd has been able to cater for the growing stream of university students with its own facilities. It said goodbye to the MBO students from the Rijn Ijssel College, who were welcomed in ten years ago to fill the centre's overcapacity. Students from the Christian Applied Sciences university in Ede are also hardly to be found at the sports centre these days. Ten Klooster: 'We have got rid of all our external clients, actually. That has created space for our own university students. We are talking about 700 extra places on total. Also, over the past two years, we have been encouraging our clients to come and do sports during the day more.'
And yet the extension is still urgently needed. It is the individual sports that Ten Klooster has particular difficulty finding room for. 'Yoga and Perfect Pilates are now being done in the meeting room.' The new extension will provide more space for these clients especially. It will consist of a seven metre deep, two-storey block with a total surface of 600 square metres. That will accommodate two fitness halls and two multifunctional rooms.
But it will be another year before that is ready, Ten Klooster guesses. Until then, he will certainly have to disappoint some of those who want to work out. 'I expect this to cost us some clients among staff especially. They don't like it if it's too busy.' Another bottleneck may be staffing. In percentage terms, the sports clubs have grown less fast than the student numbers. But Ten Klooster thinks they will start to grow now too. 'And they get teachers allocated on the basis of the number of members they have.'

New life for dormant committees
Wageningen student societies do not anticipate any capacity problems as a result of the extra first years. On the contrary. The larger societies are rediscovering dormant fraternities and the Frisians can organize a 'beer cantus' again at last.
'We are the fastest growing society in Wageningen, says SSR-W chair Pieter van Kuilenburg proudly. In 2006, his society only attracted 43 first years, now 144 have joined. But there is a down side to the growth spurt. 'Oh well, the logistics do take a bit of organizing, but we have had the chance to prepare for it. Last year, for example, we bought new tents for the intro week.' Pieter is not afraid of losing the society's small-scale quality. On the contrary, through the growth, SSR-W expects to become more personal. 'We can breathe new life into sleeping committees at last.'
Pieter's answer is exactly the same as that of the other larger societies. The same solutions are mentioned by them all: for the cosiness factor, there will be new fraternities, committees and year groups, and anyway the societies' buildings are really made for many more students. In actual fact, the societies are not so very big at the moment. They were far more popular in the nineteen eighties. The KSV, which once had 800 members on its books, now has 600. And growth spurt or not, the 500 members of SSR-W are nothing compared to the 900 the society once boasted. Since the buildings were designed for these sorts of numbers, there is no danger of a capacity problem. 'We could easily cope with a thousand people' says Ceres president Emke van Wijlen.
It is a different story for the smaller societies. Youth association Unitas - which is recovering from near bankruptcy - would have to look for new accommodation if it grew any more. Tryntsje Boersma of the Frisian student society WSSFS doesn't want to think about the prospect of her society suddenly having 120 members. 'No, no, we don't have enough older students to handle that.' She is satisfied, though, with the gentle growth toward 50 members, which is the society's present goal. 'Soon we will be able to organize a beer cantus at last. Up to now there were always too few people coming to that sort of activity.'


Budging up to study
'In the study weeks it is crowded in the Forum library', says director Ger Spikman. 'If student numbers keep on going up, we will certainly have a problem. 'Then we will need more study stations. Not that they all have to be in the library, of course. Students can spread out all over the Forum building.'
Spikman has recently created new study space through various modifications. New tables with computers have been placed in the reading corner, a staff room has been converted into a study room, extra computers have been placed on tables, and computers for external users have been made accessible to students. A total of 50 extra work stations have been created, bringing the total to 370, some with and some without computers. At present, that is enough for day-to-day use, but it gets tight at exam time. Spikman: 'The library cannot really cope with many more during the busy periods.'

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