Is My Department Too Big?

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.

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One thought on “Is My Department Too Big?

  1. Dear Andrew, dear department,
    What an interesting blog post with which to start your time as HoD! Just a few thoughts, from the point of view of having just stepped away from the role of DoE:

    1. The fluctuation in colleagues’ perception of how big our department is will have a lot to do about whom we’re counting in. If you’re thinking about permanent members of the department on the Streatham campus, you’ll have much lower figure than if you’re thinking about permanent members in Streatham and Penryn, plus colleagues on temporary E&S contracts, plus graduate student assistants and occasional teachers, who we depend on so crucially to plug the gaps in our provision and who are such an important part of the teaching operation. So a different way of thinking about your key question might be to think about the boundaries of what constitutes a department. If we use too narrow a definition, we end up missing a vital element of what constitutes the department from the point of view of our students, whose experience of who ‘we’ are is at odds with our self-perception.

    2. Yes, taking decisions in such a large unit is like turning an oil-tanker around. That’s why massive changes such as the overhaul of levels 2 and 3 that you’re signposting here need to be considered very carefully: not only is it difficult to implement such changes, but it’s even more difficult to reverse them. Not everyone likes what we did with level 1, but it’s hard to imagine how we could revisit some of those decisions without causing major distress.

    3. There are two challenges posed by the size of our department which I’d like to add to your list. The first is ‘manageability’ (the flipside of economy). Having large numbers of colleagues to teach even larger numbers of students allows us to teach in very efficient ways while still ensuring that staff-student ratios in our seminar rooms remain comparatively low (last week, I talked to a colleague at a less fortunate place who was grateful for the cap of 45 students per seminar group which had just been imposed after a long struggle). Yet this also represents management challenges.
    A module convenor for one of our whopper modules might end up working with a team of 12 or more colleagues, both experienced and inexperienced. Experienced colleagues often ‘disappear’ as they do what they’ve always done and, more often than not, do it well. The danger here is that they may not pay sufficient attention to things that have changed since they last taught on a module and that they may not realise that colleagues who are fresh to the module have brought with them exciting new ways of approaching the teaching and the subject. Meanwhile, less experienced colleagues can feel intimidated and left to their own devices, part of a gigantic machine in which they feel like a tiny, barely adequate cog. A lot of things can go wrong when individuals and their problems are lost in the crowd and everyone – not just the HoD – is too busy to have those chats over a coffee that allow small problems to be aired and solved before they escalate.
    On the next level up, it can be a significant challenge for a DoE to find the time just to read, let alone act on, the module evaluation reports (MACE) written by so many students about so many modules and colleagues. It’s a nightmare trying to stay on top of whose marking is in danger of arriving late, whose teaching needs to be covered because of unexpected absence, and which group of students needs to be talked to so as to explain what has happened to their essays or tutor.
    The bigger the structure, the more rigid its checks and balances have to be because we can no longer rely on the fortuitous encounter in the corridor and other informal ways of ensuring that everything is going according to plan. That’s not popular, since we often feel unduly policed by structures that have been introduced in order to catch stray problems (think: moderation at level 1 – easily the least popular thing I insisted on introducing during my time as DoE). But in a structure as large as ours, it’s vital to have those procedures in place.

    4. The second challenge posed by size that I think needs to be added to your list, Andrew, is that of ‘community’. When a department outgrows its ideal size (and views on what is ideal will vary hugely), it can fracture. In a perfect world, research groupings would provide smaller umbrellas under which colleagues can find one another, work together, and exchange research and teaching ideas. But our research groupings that go by period don’t easily accommodate all colleagues, are some are working across periods and even disciplines. There are also other groupings that develop within a large structure: there are what, for want of a better word, we could call ‘generational’ groupings (people who were appointed at the same time tend to bond particularly strongly), ‘background’ groupings (whether that’s because colleagues share an educational, social or national background), friendships, partnerships and collaborations. These groupings cut across the official research groups and often offer a salutary escape from institutional, prescribed structures.
    However, there is always the danger here that (a) individuals get left out of multiple alignments and find themselves alone and alienated, (b) that it’s easy to feel that it doesn’t matter too much if we don’t turn up to graduation/open days/research seminars/dinners with speakers because there’s always someone else who will do that for us, and (c) that these smaller groupings sometimes don’t work together and an ‘us-vs-them’ mentality can take over.
    It’s difficult to feel part of the ‘department’ at times when it’s such a big, amorphous thing, and an easy way of bonding is to bond in opposition to something one feels alienated from. It’s also difficult to feel involved in decision-making when, for good reasons, many key decisions can’t be taken democratically but need to be entrusted to Strategy Group or are taken outside the department altogether. (This is where ‘is my department too big’ overlaps with the issue of ‘voice’ that was so prominent in the last Staff Survey).
    We’ve taken many positive steps in the direction of enabling individuals to be involved in key decisions affecting our everyday working lives, but being in such a large group does mean that individuals who are outvoted can still feel they haven’t been listened to enough. The bigger the department, the more we need to make a conscious effort to talk to one another and really listen. That takes time and emotional intelligence and energy that no workload model can ever account for, however much our PDR/AL system is trying to address the problem. Can a sense of common purpose and community survive in such a large group?

    As you can see, I do have serious concerns about the size of our department and our student numbers. On the other hand, there are some advantages to having a large department with many students that aren’t just financial: it’s absolutely brilliant to be working alongside so many bright, quirky, interesting individuals and to be able to have so many experts at hand who can support us in our research and private lives (thanks to the colleague who gave me the contact details of a plumber). We can cover for one another in a way people in smaller departments can’t, and we can work together in more flexible ways, too. And having so many students means that even if our research would be much too ‘niche’ to be part of the teaching curriculum pretty much anywhere else, everyone stands a chance of being able to do teaching arising from research interests at level 3. That’s a luxury we’ve forgotten to enjoy.

    I suppose this long response to you, Andrew, is also a way for me to digest my experience as the DoE of our department. It was utterly exhausting, as you are probably all aware. But it was also in many ways an opportunity for me to learn to love our department all over again. As DoE, I was privy to many unsung acts of kindness, collegiality, and shows of extraordinary commitment. I got an astonishing insight into the reasons why some of the things I resent are ‘good for us’ and got to work with, and appreciate the strengths of, colleagues I’d barely known before. I am so proud of having got over that first dreadful departmental meeting in January which, as many of you know, I experienced as devastatingly aggressive, and of the way we managed to turn this around and work together on reducing the assessment load at level 1 in a meeting which will go down in history for Sam’s impeccable (implacable?) time-keeping and the number of democratic decisions taken in a single afternoon.

    So thank you, all, for helping me through the difficult times and for showing me sides of yourselves I didn’t know before. I know I didn’t get everything right (apologies to those of you who felt railroaded), but I’m pretty certain I got one thing right: caring deeply about who we are, how we are, and what we do as a group. I think we’re not just a big department, but also a great one!

    Happy summer,

    Pascale

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