The Looming Attack on Course Enrollment

Written by Brad Long

I just wrapped up a meeting with an international student who wanted to discuss potential areas of research for his honours thesis. In this chat he remarked upon his brief experience at StFX and what made it “so different from back home.” In a nutshell, it’s because with less than one month into the term his professors all know him by name. For years, StFX has tried to – and publicly claimed to – differentiate itself based on small class sizes, high levels of student engagement, student exposure to and involvement in faculty research, and other manifestations of the same phenomenon – our unique academic experience. How then do we, as a university, reconcile this sentiment with the current and projected attack on “small” class sizes, admitted to by the VP Finance during the recent budget presentations? Against the backdrop of one of the most distinctive elements of a StFX education we now hear that we need class sizes of 45 students to “break even,” and that more is better.
Of course this is purely a number crunching exercise which ignores the time and energy that goes into making courses as engaging as possible, or at least presumes that larger class sizes will be no less engaging and experiential for students as they are now. It is also a blanket statement that fails to differentiate where it makes sense for us to have larger class sizes, and where it absolutely does not. On the flip side, we are now experiencing a sporadic attack on (and cancellation of) classes whose enrollment is at or less than the arbitrary figure of 8, again without deeper analysis of the pedagogical merits for such a class size, the faculty member’s overall teaching load, and the impact on students. Students are rightfully concerned too, evident in this quote from the latest Xaverian (Vol. 124, Issue 2, p. 3): “…but the trend of increasingly large incoming class sizes does have me worried. One of the reasons I chose StFX was for its small class sizes and intimate learning environment.” We tread down the path of demanding higher course enrollments at our peril and risk charges of misleading advertising when we erode one of the distinguishing features of a StFX education.