Is the UG bursting at its seams?
Bigger and bigger
Lecturers, programme coordinators, faculty boards, and schedulers were all pretty worried when they saw the number of registrations for the current academic year. In February, the number of registrations was approximately 25 percent higher than the year before, and some faculties saw their student numbers double.
‘It’s going to be dramatic’, said rector magnificus Cisca Wijmenga during university council committee meeting back in March. Sure, the numbers changed by the day, which meant it was difficult to estimate the definitive rate of growth, but any growth spurt would be too much for the university, which was already full of overworked staff.
During the pandemic, the student population had grown by a record 10 percent. The university had received no extra funds to deal with this but was still expected to provide education in spite of the corona restrictions.
Every single staff member worked like a dog to make sure students had classes to attend and exams to sit. They were all worried about what would happen if all those students were actually allowed into the university.
Fortunately, the prediction of 360 students didn’t come true
Floor Kuiper, biology programme coordinator
In the meantime, the university had very little recourse to stop the number of registrations. They were obligated to enrol every single student who’d registered. The university had its back against the wall, Wijmenga said in March. The only thing that might work to scare away students, she said, was to not provide an online alternative to mandatory on-campus seminars.
But faculty boards like the one at the Faculty of Science and Engineering (FSE) were still watching their pre-registration numbers rise. Students kept registering for programmes such as pharmacy, physics, and applied physics, while others, like biology and the newly devised biomedical engineering, were nearly overflowing.
In May, the faculty board decided to send a warning letter to aspiring students. In it, they told them to only register if they absolutely wanted to study in Groningen, and to carefully consider whether to register at all if they were also thinking about studying elsewhere.
‘The largest number of students that were predicted was 360’, says Floor Kuiper, programme coordinator at the biology bachelor. ‘Fortunately, the actual number was much lower’, she adds, relieved. In total, 275 students turned up, comparable to last year. That was ‘really good news’ for the biology programme, according to Kuiper.
Growth failed to materialise
The rest of the university heaved a sigh of relief when the expected exponential growth failed to materialise. Last week’s report showed the actual number of students ‘only’ increased by 3 percent. Nevertheless, some faculties, like FSE and law, did see a considerable increase in registrations for bachelor programmes. The faculties grew by 10.4 and 7.5 percent, respectively, mainly due to an increasing number of students from the European Economic Area.
Work stress was high even before the pandemic
Wilbert Kolkman, law faculty dean
‘Now that the dust has settled, the numbers are still pretty high, but not as high as we’d previously thought’, says Wilbert Kolkman, dean at the law faculty. ‘You could say it’s not so bad, but but that depends on your definition of “bad”. People were already stressed out by work before the pandemic started, and the increase in student numbers is still considerable.’
Last spring, the Faculty of Law did everything it could to take care of the students as best they could. The faculty hired sixty new employees, for instance. ‘That allowed us to keep up a bit’, says Kolkman. ‘I say a bit, because new people don’t have the same skills as experienced lecturers. The new people we hired aren’t all full-time lecturers; some of them are part-time, and others are support staff.’
Growth of student numbers between 2010 and 2021
The law faculty hired most of the extra people from its own open vacancies and reserves, while they hired the rest with the help of the Ruggesteun support scheme. This scheme was partially funded by the National Education Programme, which was intended to mitigate the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. This enabled the university to distribute 23 million euros in an effort to decrease work stress.
Bachelor programmes physics and applied physics, which both grew by 50 percent, now have a little breathing room, as the money allowed them to hire three temporary lecturers and a technical worker. ‘These people are worth their weight in gold right now’, says Diederik Roest, director of education at the two bachelor programmes
The biology programme has also embraced the ‘helping hands’. ‘We were able to hire more student-assistants through the Ruggesteun scheme, and people are very pleased’, says Kuiper. ‘We were also able to hire more lecturers for biology. We’re all really happy with that.’
But because these positions are only temporary, it’s uncertain what the near future will bring. ‘Will we be back at square one in three years?’ Kuiper wonders. ‘With extreme work stress and not enough staff? Will these people be allowed to stay? Those are the questions on our lecturers’ minds.’
While the extra help is valuable, it doesn’t solve the work stress issue, she says. ‘It does help, but it doesn’t mean the work stress has suddenly gone. It’s still high and will stay high. We can’t lose sight of that.’
And where are they supposed to put all those extra people? ‘The pandemic has cushioned the worst of it, since most classes are still online’, says Kolkman. But everyone showing up for classes on campus would be ‘quite the problem’, he says. Especially when those classes are taught in small rooms. The law faculty has several high-volume programmes and all those students have to attend seminars at the same time. ‘Scheduling all that is very difficult.’
The cushioning effect is also noticeable at the departments of biology and phsyics. ‘The real challenge is only just beginning’, says Roest. The bigger lectures have all been online so far, but the restrictions on more than seventy-five people in a lecture hall have been lifted. ‘How can we provide on-site classes for such a large group? We’ll probably have to compromise.’
The real challenge is only just beginning
Diederik Roest, director of education at physics and applied physics
One of the issues is that the faculty shares large lecture halls at Zernike with other faculties. Kuiper says it’s difficult to predict how this will work out. ‘But with many more students across different programmes, the schedulers will have a big challenge on their hands to find everyone a suitable location.’
This applies to the practical classes both FSE programmes offer, as there are only so many laboratories and other practical rooms available. Besides, the faculty has already created extra room by hiring more staff. ‘That means we can still offer practical classes to all students.’ Nevertheless, the schedulers still have one hell of a puzzle on their hands.
Curb the numbers
While the corona restrictions mean the impact isn’t completely manifest yet, the growth spurt the university has gone through over the past two years is causing real problems. The question remains: How can the UG curb student number?
One solution is a numerus clausus, which the biology department will instate next year. ‘We know that we won’t have more than 250 students next year’, says Kuiper. ‘That’s reassuring, at least.’
Roest says the topic has also come up at the physics department. ‘But we haven’t made a decision yet. We’re one of the few physics programmes in the Netherlands that’s in English, which means Brexit would explain our high student numbers. If they keep up, we might have to start seriously discussing the option.’
The Faculty of Law doesn’t really feel that a numerus clausus is fair. ‘You’re basically telling people who are fully qualified that they’re not allowed to study their subject of choice’, says Kolkman. ‘I’d prefer a level playing field, where everyone who’s qualified has an equal shot.’
The faculty has started to recruit less. ‘We’re also using a mandatory matching system. We’re allowed to refuse people who only register but don’t respond to any of our communications.’
What’s really needed, all three say, is better government funding. ‘We know the university can’t do very much about the issue’, says Kuiper. ‘The only thing that would help is the means to properly keep up with increasing student numbers.’