Wageningen University is going through a massive growth in student numbers. The Growth Committee thinks the institution needs to reinvent its education programme. ‘Growth is a chance’.
The university of Wageningen has grown astronomically in recent years. After a lean decade, student numbers doubled from around 4500 in 2006 to an estimated 9000 in 2014. And still counting: the end to the growth is not in sight. But it does put the Wageningen philosophy of small-scale, personal and intensive teaching under pressure. So the members of the ‘Growth Committee’, led by Biology programme director Marjolijn Coppens (left, photo: Guy Ackermans), came up with scenarios which could enable the university to cope with its popularity. The committee offered its own proposal. It felt the university should embrace growth, or at least only limit it a little. Innovations such as e-learning should by now offer enough options for keeping up the quality of the education. The executive board has now set up two working groups which will use the report as the basis for drawing up concrete policy.
Your committee advises the university to go for growth. Why is that the best course of action for Wageningen?
‘Growth offers opportunities. For example, you can develop your education further but you can also employ new people, perhaps with expertise we don’t yet have in-house. That expands the possibilities for students too.’
Do you hope the university will follow this advice?
‘To some extent it makes no difference to me which scenario is chosen, as long as a choice is made and disseminated throughout the organization. The university must make choices. What I wouldn’t like is for us to carry on with business as usual.’
One of the alternative scenarios suggests this is the right moment to start selecting students on ability. That means a limited number of places on all Bachelor’s programmes and only admitting the best high school graduates. Isn’t this a great opportunity for the WU to change into a university fill of high achievers?
‘That kind of achievement culture is not at all usual in Dutch secondary schools. Excellence has only recently come into the picture for the government, and I haven’t yet heard anyone say it should be pursued at the expense of the average student. That wouldn’t fit the Netherlands or Wageningen. You can opt for it, but it is one of the more extreme scenarios and therefore has more far-reaching consequences.
Instead, your committee wants the university to absorb the growth by using computer-assisted learning, or e-learning. How would this kind of innovation help?‘Many elements of our education, such as lectures to large groups, or preparing for practicals, could be done by the students at home. Using video clips, for example. Less efficient teaching methods could be replaced with e-learning. To prepare for a practical, you could get someone to set up an experiment already, for instance. That way students go into the practicals better prepared, and you need less time and space. You would continue to do the key kinds of work, such as difficult assignments which students cannot work on alone, in the usual way.’
Wageningen University has been growing apace. The prognoses are for 20 percent more Bachelor’s students in 2014 and 2015, and an increase of 5 percent in subsequent years.
Last year there was a nationwide debate about the question of whether there is still any future in lectures? Are you quietly announcing the death of the lecture here?
(Laughs) ‘That sounds very extreme but if you take this to its logical conclusion? Yes, the best thing about lectures is that they are a good way of enthusing students, but they are not the best way of transmitting information. Nevertheless, in the end the teacher designs the course. If there are rooms available and he wants to give a lecture, he can.’
Is there more of a vision behind this than just the wish to make the teaching more efficient?
‘This could help improve our education too. You look for ways of getting students to engage with the material more actively. I have made e-learning modules myself, so I know there are loads of ways you can build feedback into them. Certainly if you are an experienced teacher who knows what mistakes students tend to make. But you can also get students working with peers, for instance, so they help each other. In Nematology there is a trial going on with thesis circles. Led by a teacher, students present their plans and their results to each other, and they give each other feedback. The teacher supervises a whole group this way, rather than one individual.’
These are ambitious plans, but how are the chair groups going to make this transition to e-learning?
‘That is a lot of work and you have to take time for it. You can’t just say to teachers: next year your course must switch totally to e-learning. That won’t work at all. The first steps have already been taken, with a decision to use the innovation budget mainly for adapting courses for larger groups of students. With this money you can support teachers, but time will tell whether that is enough. It is a big operation, so I do think it will be hard work.’
The report also notes that the current tenure track rules make it difficult to meet the growing demand for teaching time. What is the solution to this?
‘The tenure track rules require staff to spend about half their time on research besides their teaching commitments. So to increase teaching capacity, you also need more research funding coming in, but that doesn’t always happen. You therefore need to be able to have some of the staff concentrating full-time on teaching. Not too many, because of course we want to maintain the link between education and research. Our proposal is a maximum of 25 percent. We also discuss other possible solutions such as longer contracts for PhD students and student assistants, or sharing the teaching jobs over several chair groups.’
Wageningen University is keen to hang on to its strong points. Yet your committee thinks the university will become more formal in the years to come.
‘That is indeed a consequence of growth and that trend has already started. As courses get bigger, for instance, they are stricter about admissions. They are quicker to turn away students who apply too late, since things have been arranged already and the practicals are full. The increasingly complicated timetables are making it hard enough to organize things anyway. We are losing the flexibility we had, so we shall more often think: there are rules and we shall keep to them. In that sense we shall start to look more like other universities.’
Aren’t your proposals really a bit of a contradiction in terms? Wageningen wants to grow but to stay small-scale.
‘At some point it is not really small-scale anymore of course, but what we do want is to remain a personal university, with teachers you know, who are accessible. That kind of personal contact is this university’s strong point. So we need to be smart by using innovative methods to hold on to that. Whether that is possible, time will tell.’