Soon the University will face a choice. In fact, the fork in the road may already be upon us. The number of students at York has hit around 15,000; but this wasn’t meant to happen yet. In the University’s 2009 Development Plan, it foresees this being achieved towards the latter half of the decade – not in 2012.
This creates a fundamental question for York: what kind of university do we want to be? The first road is the safe option, stop expanding so quickly and begin further development on older buildings, accommodation, and departments on Heslington West. The other path leads us to a dramatically larger University, with a bigger (and potentially better) Heslington East. A few years ago, the University said it would assess these options in 2019, but it is being forced to decide sooner than it wants.
The best business decision would probably be to continue expanding. Students want to come to York – and many prospective students are rejected. The demand is there to increase numbers. But is this really what we want to happen? The best characteristics of York would be lost if there were over 20,000 students trampling the muddy shores surrounding the lake. The library would become a haven for only those who have the personal space of a sardine. Your housemate wouldn’t know whom you’re talking about when you moan about the annoying person in your seminar, nor be able to find the phone number of someone you just met in two texts. On the up side, perhaps the Willow would re-locate, double in size, and provide other Chinese-British staples apart from their favoured prawn crackers. We can only dream.
Obviously I am being slightly facetious. The University would invest to a certain extent to cope with 5-10,000 more students, but I’m not sure that’s what I really want. I quite like the small community feel York currently has. I enjoy constantly bumping into people I know on campus. I don’t envy those who have to travel for half an hour on a bus to get to a lecture.
Heslington East would benefit from more students, if only to get rid of the Wild West ghost town feel it currently has; whenever I venture across its grassy moat I expect to see tumbleweed blowing across the road.
Hopefully, this will happen with Langwith’s move there next year, and a new college in 2014. But the third college on ‘campus mark two’ must be used to allow more second and third years to live on campus, not to increase the number of students York admits as a whole. The increasing divide between freshers on campus and everyone else off it, is also slowly undermining the feeling of a united college community.
Without these charming features, York just becomes another generic, relatively large university. We cannot compete with Leeds or Manchester on nightlife, quality accommodation, or music acts.
What we can beat them at is community and spirit. Forsaking that would change the University we are a part of and put a lot of people off coming here. Bigger doesn’t mean better. Quality teaching and a quality experience are easier to provide within a smaller community and any significant increase above 15,000 students would endanger the best characteristics that York has.
The University has a choice to make. They say they haven’t decided on the path yet; let’s hope that’s the case. One path keeps York the way it is, whereas the other risks turning it into a generic, middle-sized institution.
Although university league table rankings aren’t generally reliable, a pattern has been emerging over the last two years, with York falling in almost all of them. This hasn’t affected the number of applicants yet.
But it does put pressure on the management to distinguish us from the other top 20 universities. A close-knit community has been one of York’s best selling points. Let’s not jeopardise that by a delusional pursuit of growth for the sake of growth.