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Global 100… But at what cost?

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tudents, Guild employees and members of academic staff have expressed concerns about overcrowding at the University, despite the institution entering the top 100 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings last month.

Figures released to Exeposé reveal that the number of students at the University has consistently risen every year since 2002/2003, with the exception of between 2005/2006 and 2006/2007. In 2015/16, the planned number of students on Exeter campuses is 17,914, a growth of eight per cent since 2013/14, 1,365 more students than there were three years ago. The planned increase in student numbers on Streatham and St. Luke’s campuses between 2014/15-2015/16 is 450, a rise of 2.5 per cent.

This influx of students has been accompanied by campus-wide expansion including the construction of The Forum, the renovation of Devonshire House and the ongoing £52 million build of the Living Systems Institute on Streatham Campus. This, combined with the University’s position as a world-leading research institution – in the most recent Research Excellence Framework, Exeter was ranked 16th nationally – has helped the University to rise to seventh place in The Times Higher Education UK rankings, and in September 2015, the University entered the global top 100 universities for the first time, placing at 93rd.

There are signs, however, that the continued rise in student numbers is having an adverse impact on student and staff satisfaction at the University. A survey conducted by Exeposé has revealed that 80 per cent of the 430 respondents felt that the University campus was overcrowded.

The biggest area of concern was the lack of study space, with 90 per cent of those surveyed stating there was not enough study space for the amount of students at the University. Over half of respondents also stated they did not think there were enough food outlets on campus, whilst four in ten students said their classes were too big.

Students were also asked to identify how they were most affected by overcrowding. Again, the most pressing issue was the lack of study space, with 57 per cent of respondents stating this affected them the most. For nearly one in five students, queues on campus was the biggest concern. Only five per cent of respondents stated that they were not affected by overcrowding.

Several Guild employees have expressed their concerns about the demand for Guild services on campus. Speaking anonymously, one student member of staff from the Guild Shop said that they thought campus was “significantly” busier than in previous years. “You only have to visit the Guild shop in the afternoon to see just how busy it can get,” they said: “The queue is often out of the door – there’s clearly a high demand.”

Another staff member, who works at the RAM bar, said: “It’s really busy in there every lunchtime, and quite often the wait for food goes up to an hour. It’s clear that there aren’t enough seats in there to handle lunchtime crowds. Everyone knows it’s not big enough for the number of students we’re trying to serve.”

Despite nearly 60 per cent of respondents reporting that they were happy with the size of their classes, academic staff have stated that the rise in students is impacting their workload. In an email to Exeposé, a Philosophy lecturer, who asked not to be named, said:

“The three-week turnaround system for assessment of coursework is completely untenable. I have nearly 200 students in one first-year module. If I assign 15 minutes to each essay, that’s about 50 hours of work. Spread over three weeks, it’s 17 hours a week with no days off .

“That’s on top of regular teaching, research, administrative, and pastoral duties. Not to mention, you know, having a life.

“If we’re expected to do this, everything else we are expected to do for the student experience will suffer. It’s just not feasible to carefully mark and provide useful feedback within 21 days.”

Another member of academic staff , who also wished to remain anonymous spoke of “unevenness of growth” and the subsequent “strain on administrative staff ”.

They said: “The way the University tries to deal with this [overcrowding] is by developing more processes and systems, which involves more work. There are not enough people in the office.”

The increase in intake has placed additional strain on University housing. An FOI request revealed that in 2015/16,347 first-year students were not housed in University accommodation, up from 285 in 2014/15. This figure does, however, include first year students who chose not to apply for University accommodation. In issue 642, Exeposé revealed that this year the University had negotiated contracts for students in luxury private accommodation provider Printworks for the first time.

Exeposé has previously highlighted numerous issues relating to overcrowding on campus. In May 2015, the University added 76 new study spaces to the Forum Library, leading to the removal of academic texts. The University’s decision to extend the teaching day, also as a result of a lack of lecture space, was met by student anger, as reported by Exeposé in December 2014. Meanwhile, the Wellbeing Centre has struggled to cope with excess demand for its services, with emergency funding required in January 2014 after a 38 per cent increase in students contacting the Centre for assistance.

Guild President Laura-Jane Tiley said: “We are extremely lucky to have such an alive and buzzing campus atmosphere – it is something that makes Exeter unique. However, it is a real concern to us that students feel like they don’t have enough space. Overcrowding on campus is something that we as a SABB team will be carefully monitoring over the next few months as well as the impact on the Exeter student experience.”

VP Education Bethan Jones added: “The Students’ Guild has heard students’ concerns about campus overcrowding and has been pressing the University for some time to ensure that the student experience does not suffer due to growth and expansion. As a result, a number of new spaces have just been added to the library. I will continue to lobby for more desk spaces on campus but I also encourage students to use the free space checker on the iExeter app to identify study spaces in academic buildings.”

Speaking about the poll, Professor Tim Quine, Interim Deputy Vice Chancellor for Education at the University of Exeter said: “Students are at the heart of the University of Exeter. I would like to thank all those who were able to complete the poll, as all feedback is invaluable as we seek to continuously improve the University for the benefit of the whole community – students and staff alike.

“The poll provides very valuable insight into the issues that concern students, and in my Comment piece I address them more fully. I can assure you that we take them very seriously.

“The University has a number of initiatives in place to help. For example, we have created additional spaces in the Library over the summer but recognise that there is more to do, and we have employed additional staff for the Market Place to ensure waiting times for customers are reduced at peak times.

“Ensuring that our students have the best possible Exeter experience is always the priority for the University. Personally as the new Deputy-Vice Chancellor for Education I am always keen to hear your views and your ideas on how we can continue to make your time at Exeter as academically stimulating, enjoyable and productive as we can.”

In December 2013, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced the cap on the number of UK and EU undergraduates that English Higher Education Institutions could recruit would be relaxed in 2014/15 and abolished in 2015/16.

James Beeson, Fiona Potigny & Susannah Keogh, Editor and News Editors

Additional reporting by Sarah Gough and Josh Mines.

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