Over the summer, when most academics have better things to do, heads of many of the more successful academic departments across the country are being asked the question: ‘How about taking another X students this year?’ (In my experience, X = a figure between ten and fifty.) The answer, if not predetermined, is weighted: saying ‘no’ would not be a good career-move, and would probably be futile anyway.
Before getting grumpy, it’s worth being aware of why this question is being asked. The current admissions system makes it logical to take extra students, if applicants are available at an appropriate quality. This may, in some instances, be a case of vice-chancellors – bless ’em – finding it difficult to walk past £200k when they see it. More often, it will be a case of departments with stronger recruitment patterns making up for departments with weaker patterns. There’s a risk here of using strong departments to paper over endemic problems in weaker departments. There’s also a risk of managers setting the weaker departments unrealistic targets, in the knowledge that someone else will pick up the tab when push comes to shove. But it’s also undeniable that the ABB system hasn’t been easy on some disciplines (as I discussed in an earlier blog). Norms, quotas, targets, and so forth, become more fluid under these conditions. And it’s much nicer, in this world, to be head of a department recruiting 250 students a year than of one struggling to reach twenty-five.
My worry, though, is that ‘another X students’ is the wrong question. We’ve done this in English at Exeter more years than not recently, and we’ve always managed well enough. Student satisfaction rates are consistently high; tariff-on-entry is excellent; drop-out rates are very low. In these conditions, the difference between, say, an expected intake of 250 and an eventual intake of 275, with some extra teaching support provided to cover the additional classes, is somewhat notional. It becomes almost illogical to say ‘no’. But when this happens repeatedly, intakes can quite quickly increase substantially, and departments become rather different places. Might a better question, then, be: what’s the optimum size for my department?
Size is probably more good than bad. In global terms, it helps to put a department on the map: most of the top state universities in the US are very big (Berkeley, for instance, lists seventy-three faculty). We surely wouldn’t have leaped forward in the international league tables the way we have if we had remained at the size we were ten years ago. In other words, a big UK department could probably do better on some metrics if it was smaller, but the reputational gain may be worth the hit. And I think there may be more good than bad to size as far as students are concerned. The ‘knowing everyone’s name’ effect surely fades away quickly once a cohort gets over 100, and we’ve learned to compensate for this by getting pastoral-support structures right. The benefits of size, meanwhile, include breadth of coverage in a discipline, and greater resources. Some of those electronic resources, for instance, that can make such a difference for staff as well as students, can be very expensive.
But there are also risks attached to size. Firstly, there are management challenges. I’ve been acutely aware of these, being in the process of returning to my department as head, after some misspent years at college level. In the days after accepting the job, one senior colleague told me we now had ‘more than sixty’ staff, another told me it was ‘more than seventy’, and a third ‘more than eighty’. And so last Friday I became line-manager of an unknown number of people. Size of this dimension affects the feel of a department. I’d apply the ‘coffee test’: i.e. is it feasible that a head could maintain meaningful contact with every colleague by meeting for an occasional coffee? That can be done in a department of twenty-five, but leading a group of eighty will require different methods, and probably different structures as well. I’m not convinced that the university/college models for departments adequately acknowledge this point. Secondly, change becomes more challenging – more like turning a super-tanker in the open sea – in a big department. We began a process of curriculum reform about seven years ago when we numbered 30-40, and produced a lovely new Level One. Rethinking levels two and three will happen, but it feels like the stakes a higher, and there are bound to be more voices demanding to be heard. Thirdly, while we’re good at maintaining overall student satisfaction, ensuring equality of experience is a concern. And fourthly, big departments are exposed to shifts in patterns of student demand. There’s nothing natural about the current size of English departments: these things can change.
There are also risks attached to unplanned growth. We tend to address the ‘extra X students’ by employing fixed-term Education and Scholarship (i.e. non-research) lecturers. We get great value from these people, but there are risks attached to depending so much on so many junior lecturers, who are inevitably juggling other priorities as they try to build their careers. And will we be able to meet all the demands of the new University Education Strategy with such a high number of E&S staff? I’d also note that this is a strategy that masks underlying workload pressures in the department. There’s pressure on colleges not to make E&S appointments, in order to prioritize investment in research, but removing them from English would be interesting.
We’re in a fortunate position. There are plenty of departments, across the country, that have precisely the opposite problem, and that can be a matter of survival. But I hope that we will have the opportunity, as a department, to consider fundamental questions of size and structures. And I will be very interested to know what my colleagues think.