Andrew McRae, Head of the English department, offers his thoughts on the challenges, and in his eyes positive consequences, that have arisen over the increasing growth of Exeter students.
Exeter has one of the biggest English departments in the country. Most days of the week I couldn’t honestly say how many people I’m line-managing. I gave up trying to count our students years ago.
It wasn’t always this way. Some of our growth has been planned, because it just made sense to be a bit bigger. Some has been unplanned, because English is reliably good at recruiting highly qualified students, and many years, one way or another, the University has just needed a few more.
Size brings its challenges. We’re pretty good at ensuring overall quality of experience, with so many excellent lecturers teaching over so many different areas, but equality of experience is perhaps more of a challenge when we’re responsible for so many people. I also worry that we’re not as nimble as we might be. It takes us years to agree any meaningful changes to our curriculum.
But it can be too easy to assume that size necessarily causes problems, and to idealize departments in which everybody knows the students’ names. In actual fact, in English, over a period of rising student numbers we have almost always been resourced appropriately. As a result we have managed to increase staff numbers and contact hours, and decrease staff-student ratios and seminar sizes.
More students can also translate into greater resources and better support services. Maybe this is even more true in a digital age than a generation ago: all those electronic library resources, used by hundreds of students at a time, don’t come cheap.
In cultural terms, perhaps size is more manageable at a campus university like Exeter than elsewhere. Students here have so many ways of establishing a sense of community, thus overcoming some of the challenges of being one of several hundred in a first-year lecture.
Our cohesive Staff-Student Liaison Committees make a big difference, while the rise of subject-based societies in recent years has also helped. And it’s worth considering MA and PhD students as well as undergraduates. For the postgrads, size is almost entirely positive. Resources matter to them, as does the range of available expertise. And perhaps most of all, they value the number of other students at the same level with similar interests, all driving towards the same goals.
That’s not to say that there aren’t always things we want to improve: hence our annual scrutiny of the National Student Survey, which prompts us to identify reforms and to set new targets. Questions proposed for future versions of the NSS, on student engagement, will place fresh pressures on bigger departments.
One of my own targets for English is the Guild award for ‘Best Research Community’. That award does tend to go to smaller departments, in which staff and students at all levels work in closer proximity. If we can win that, we’ll know we’ve cracked it.
Head of English