McMaster’s student population has taken off since 2000, and last year, the university hit its operating peak.

An unexpected surplus of students chose McMaster last summer – about 400 students above target – which meant that the university couldn’t accommodate every student who wanted and was eligible to live in residence. First years were offered $1000 to live off campus, plus priority placement in their second year.

Though last year’s large freshman cohort was a provincial blip, with a record-setting 90,000 first years entering universities across Ontario, rising enrolment numbers are a growing concern.

A campus capacity study based on data from 2008-2009 concluded that McMaster needed approximately 12 per cent more space than it had in order to support student enrolment.

As of 2009, residential facilities have the largest percentage of space on campus at 20.5 per cent, followed by academic departmental offices and research labs for faculty and graduate students. Classroom and library facilities comprise about 8.5 per cent each, and common-use student activity space covers 1.5 per cent.

Dean of Students and Associate Vice-President (Student Affairs) Phil Wood, who was on the study’s steering committee, said there is an ongoing effort to optimize the use of classroom facilities and to improve amenities such as wireless Internet access.

As McMaster’s student population grows, so does the need for more study space on campus.

In 2009, Thode Library’s third floor was renovated and became home to the iSci Program, and the following year, the fourth floor of Mills Library became the Lyons New Media Centre. While the renovations were good news to certain programs, they meant the loss of study space for the general student population.

In response to growing demand, the University administration and McMaster Students Union (MSU) have worked to secure more permanent study space and 24-hour access to Thode Library during exam time.

Current MSU president Siobhan Stewart has proposed an agreement to keep Bridges Café open longer during exam periods, beginning this December.

Vivian Lewis, Acting University Librarian, said the number of seats in libraries has increased dramatically from about 1,900 in 2004 to just over 2,900 in 2009. This past January, the entire book section on the second floor of Thode Library was moved to the basement, making way for 390 individual carrels in a new quiet study area.

“We’ve been investing a lot of time and intellectual labour into creating more seats for students,” said Lewis. “At the same time, we have to consider the quality of the work environment and the valuable collections we have in our libraries.”

Huzaifa Saeed, VP (Education) of the MSU, said that apart from overcrowding on campus, the MSU is concerned about higher student-to-faculty ratios and a decrease in the flexibility of course options for students.

“Rising enrolment is only one piece of the puzzle,” he added. “We are currently researching best practices across the higher education sector to improve quality of education for large class sizes.”

Although official numbers won’t be released until November, first-year confirmation numbers from the Ontario Universities’ Application Centre suggest that incoming class will be smaller than last year’s. This time around, the residence space issue is not so dire.

Even so, the number of students enrolling in Ontario universities has been steadily climbing (from 275,000 in 2000 to 434,000 in 2012). A recent report from the Council of Ontario Universities says that province-wide enrolment is up 2.5 per cent from last year. The challenges that come with this are ever present.

Projects that would increase McMaster’s campus capacity include the new $65-million Wilson Building dedicated to liberal arts studies, on which construction will begin next year, as well as a downtown health campus that will be a facility for teaching, research and healthcare delivery.

The Wilson Building will be used by more than half of McMaster’s student population, and the new health campus, to open in 2014, is expected to serve 4,000 students.

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