‘Evening classes should not be the solution for the shortage of lecture halls’

Photo: DUB

One year ago, every Tuesday evening at 5:15 pm, I would log on to Microsoft Teams for my class. On the screen were twenty faces, still pretty fresh-looking, with whom I would be working for the next few hours. I gave my classes in the time slot between 5:00 and 9:00 pm. Although they varied in length, most weeks we would still be busy until at least 8:00 pm. Week after week, I noticed how students' concentration would subside around 6:30 pm. At that time of day, breaks and energizers had little to no effect, because most students had already had a long day behind them — and, to be honest, so did I.

Before each class, I conducted a poll. Did the students prefer to begin at 5:15 pm immediately, or would they rather have a break to get an early dinner first? Did they favour a longer break in between or were they more inclined to take short breaks so they could finish the class as early as possible? Week after week, almost unanimously, the group voted to start as early as possible and go on without any long breaks, so they’d still have something of an evening left. The evaluation revealed that the students would have preferred not to have workgroups at that time of day, as they had trouble concentrating.

In the end, most students achieved the learning goals of the course, but I suspect they would have gotten more out of it if classes had taken place during the day. Granted, it was an exceptional situation. This was the only class in our study programme and the only workgroup with evening classes.

A tough dilemma
Unfortunately, it looks like evening classes will no longer be an exception in the future. Now that classes are taking place on location ever more often, it’s becoming increasingly clear that UU is facing a serious shortage of space. The number of students and employees increased sharply in the past two years, and the number of lecture halls could not keep up with this growth. As a result, UU is faced with a tough dilemma regarding the availability of lecture halls, scheduling, online classes, and evening classes.

In December, the Executive Board confirmed that the university has a capacity problem. There simply isn’t enough space available to plan all classes during the day. Hence their conclusion to turn evening classes into something structural. They spoke of a step-by-step introduction, in which the number of evening classes would be limited to a maximum of one block per teacher per year, with one evening class a week. At the Faculty of Humanities, evening classes were also recently proposed as a means to solve future scheduling problems. The choice for more evening classes seems to have already been made.

However, evening classes are not an option for every student and teacher. The group that does have a need for this is too small to solve the scheduling problems. In fact, structurally scheduling evening classes is going to increase the workload for many colleagues and students.

Evening classes increase workload
The discussion about evening classes isn’t new. In 2017, DUB presented the then-new staff members of the Executive Board with a dilemma: would they rather be available to students 24 hours a day or give more lectures after seven o'clock in the evening? The answers varied. One councillor indicated that the evening should really be private, while another one was happy to give classes in the evening. Back then, two issues emerged from the discussion, which shows how difficult it will be to plan evening lectures structurally.

Students and teachers usually already have activities planned in the evening:
Whether it's sports, family life, cultural activities, or something else – most of these things don’t take place during the day or can’t just be planned at a different time. Most of the activities organised by student associations take place in the evenings. An increase in the number of evening classes will not change that fact: associations will not suddenly hold extra gatherings during the day and schoolchildren will not suddenly start going to school in the evening. Making evening classes structural will therefore mean that a group of teachers and students will have one less evening a week for these other activities.

Compensating time for evening classes not only requires personal discipline but also a structurally lower workload:
In theory, an advantage of evening classes is that it spares students and teachers from working at another moment, such as the morning or afternoon. Having classes in the evening would free up time during the day to go to the gym, for example. However, in practice, that is unlikely to happen when the workload is high and they have a lot of research, study or grading to do. The temptation to work that extra morning or afternoon is strong. Evening classes also give the impression that teachers are available in the evenings for other types of work, such as grading or answering emails, which also leads to an increase in workload. Before evening classes can be scheduled structurally, first the university must tackle the workload issue.

There certainly is a group that will still be enthusiastic about evening classes after reading the issues mentioned above. But I’m afraid that is only a small group – much too small to structurally schedule evening classes for them, and much too small to solve the current problems.

And that’s exactly where the bottleneck lies. Structural evening classes can either mean that a small group of enthusiastic teachers will be teaching in the evening more often than one block a year, or that a much larger group of teachers – including those for whom this is highly inconvenient – will simply have to work evenings. 

For students, it’s a matter of waiting until the beginning of the block to know whether classes will take place during the day or in the evening anyway. So planning evening classes by mutual agreement seems somewhat far-fetched to me, but I hope someone can prove me wrong.

No prospect of a solution
If evening classes aren’t a solution, then what would be an alternative? The context of these problems is complex. The aforementioned growth in the number of students is a truly significant factor. It’s great that there are plans to limit this growth, but at the same time, it appears that universities have little to no saying in this.

Is more funding the answer, then? It's been known for some time that the current higher education budget established by The Hague is insufficient to fulfil the current educational tasks (1.1 billion short of what is actually necessary, to be precise). Increasing the budget could therefore be a solution, but it doesn’t seem like more money will be made available to higher education any time soon.

Another option is to schedule more classes online. It is certainly possible to offer (a small) part of UU's education online, as the pandemic has taught us. One-on-one conversations between students and teachers, for example, can take place online. However, the pandemic has also shown that structurally giving classes online has negative consequences for the quality of education.

Unfortunately, there aren’t that many knobs we can turn. As a university, we've decided to spend no more than 15 percent of our expenses on its own housing. The Executive Board is not keen on changing that, as they find that every euro spent on housing ultimately comes at the expense of educational quality. I understand this but, at the same time, I think it's a false dilemma. Housing and logistics, which includes halls with proper facilities and scheduling, determine the quality of education as well. Structural evening classes will therefore also come at the expense of educational quality. The group that is willing and able to voluntarily schedule evening classes is too small to solve the problem. In addition, the workload will increase for almost everyone.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves the underlying question: why do we keep adjusting to a budget that is too tight, and to housing that is too meagre? The educational quality will be compromised by this anyway. So let us, as a university, draw the line here. Structural evening classes? That’s not something UU is willing to do.

Tags: workload | housing