Campus capacity: Bursting at the seams

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Jonathon Fairclough / Production Editor

Farzeen Foda

Senior News Editor

 

There was a time, not too long ago when the McMaster campus was reaching its capacity. It was known that campus space would be an issue in coming years, but sooner than expected, McMaster passed that threshold.

The university is now operating at full capacity.

For many years, McMaster has kept its target enrolment static, at roughly 5,000 students despite pressure from the provincial government to increase enrolment. Even with a stagnant target enrolment, the University has experienced rapid growth that has continued to put more strain on its resources and infrastructure.

Since 2005, McMaster University has seen a 62.7 per cent increase in the number of full-time undergraduate students, contributing to an over-populated campus, according to the 2010 Campus Capacity study, which found that the McMaster campus is in fact saturated and currently exceeding its capacity. The provincial government, however, continues to push universities to increase enrolment.

In an effort to show the Ministry that the University is willing to do what it can to comply with the goals of the province, but is limited in its capacity to do so, the University increased its target enrolment by a mere 140 students, hardly substantial for an institution serving upwards of 20,000 students,

Peter Smith, McMaster University VP-Academic, said the University is at its maximum capacity to expand.

At the same time that the University’s target increased slightly, McMaster received a greater number of applications, resulting in a 2.5 per cent increase in the number of offers of admission. Subsequently, compared to the previous year, McMaster saw a seven per cent increase in the number of students accepting their offer of admission, followed by an overall 8.7 per cent increase in the number of students who registered for the upcoming academic term, according to Smith.

With the substantial influx of first year students, it became imperative that the University not only arrange physical accommodation for students, whether that be through modifications of classrooms or increasing the number of spaces in residence, but to maintain course availability.

Registration for the 2011/2012 academic year was a much smoother process than it has been in the past, noted Smith. This was due, in part, to slight changes to SOLAR to increase its capacity, as well as increases in the number of spaces in particular courses.

Smith said that 11,000 seats were created in courses particularly in the Faculties of Science, Humanities, and Social Science, as these tend to be faculties that offer courses that are often in high demand for students in other faculties. Most seats were created in first year courses, but the increase in spaces spanned all levels of undergraduate education. The creation of additional seats was accomplished by adding sections to courses that tend to be in high demand.

The addition of sections to courses that are already experiencing high enrolment, although not a permanent solution, especially if McMaster’s growth is expected to continue in this way, was the best temporary solution, given the other potential options.

Other considerations when faced with the challenge of high enrolment, included weekend classes, increasing classroom hours, as well as holding classes off campus, according to Alicia Ali, MSU Vice President, Education.

Despite the markedly high enrolment and the fact the McMaster campus is functioning at capacity, business is resuming relatively stress-free at this time. In fact, many problems facing undergraduate education in recent years, such as the transition from WebCT to Elm have been solved with the implementation of AvenuetoLearn. Meanwhile course registration went relatively smoothly this year, and with an increase in spaces in particular courses, more students were able to get into the courses they wanted.

The University has successfully accommodated climbing enrolment, while maintaining an outstanding reputation, and complying with government expectations of the institution, painting an exquisite portrait of numbers and figures, but with a closer look, what can be found is a saturated campus, hoping it can colour within the lines for one more year.

More seats have been created in courses that already serve a large number of students and are now running at full capacity. The amount of classroom space available on campus is quite literally always in use, explained Smith, noting that much of the testing and maintenance work required for these spaces has been pushed to weekends to accommodate the growing numbers of courses requiring these classrooms during regular business hours.

A similar trend has been observed in the University’s libraries. “Our [library] spaces are at capacity all the time,” said Anne Pottier, an Associate University Librarian, noting that much of the maintenance work has had to be rescheduled to accommodate the high demand for library space.

Library space is running at full capacity, and each square metre of McMaster’s libraries are quickly transforming into rows upon rows of cubicles for quiet study space. “One of the things we’re trying to do, is change our more traditional spaces into user space for students, but in order to do that, we have to compress our collections, and try to find that space,” said Pottier.

The most recent development has been on the second floor of Thode Library, which was cleared of its book stacks during the summer and is now awaiting furniture that is expected to create 400 seats and five different types of study space. The current temporary fixture, in place as of Oct. 17, has created 250 study spaces in the area, featuring folding tables and patio chairs, noted Pottier.

She further explained that the new furniture was expected to be in place by Thanksgiving, but has been delayed. The hope is that the new study space will be completed by the beginning of the coming exam season.

With all available student space on campus running at full capacity at all hours of the day, significant strain is being placed on resources, and maintaining operations in this manner is certainly not a sustainable solution.

It follows without question then, that a more permanent solution needs to be in place as soon as possible. The Wilson Building is a project currently under tremendous support from the City and the University, but also under substantial pressure to accommodate the growing needs of the University.

It is still early in the year, and the high enrolment issue has only surfaced in its entirety in the residence domain of university life, but how this bursting campus will handle the strain during exam time, remains somewhat unclear it seems, especially in the libraries. One key factor in developing additional study space is providing enough power supply outlets for students using laptops, which is difficult in some of the older buildings.

Another concern is the access to quiet study space. Efforts have been made to keep Mills Learning Commons a quiet study space, during late night hours. Noting the stigma surrounding “Club Mills”, Pottier said, “I know people find that the Mills Learning Commons is not as quiet as it can be, but we have really good security guards working with us to try and keep the noise down,” outlining the library’s goal to transform the sixth floor of Mills Library into an absolutely silent study space, prohibiting music, and cell phone use.

The McMaster campus is running at its full capacity at this time. It can be seen in the libraries which are bustling with students at all hours of the day or night. The congestion can be seen on the campus grounds between classes, and in any lecture hall. If everything continues to run smoothly throughout the year, McMaster should be able to manage, but any hiccup throughout the year, such as a snow day, may pose serious complications for the University, noted Smith. The need is eminent and the resources to solve the problem are in place, what remains, is the mobilization of those resources.

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