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Hurry Up and Wait: Campus Spaces Overloaded

As a fourth year student at McMaster University, I’ve had the good fortune to experience post-secondary education on a beautiful campus – a beautiful, crowded campus. McMaster University (for all of its efforts to improve) is without a doubt overcrowded, over capacity, and (at least as an outside observer) not doing a whole lot in fixing the issue. That is not to say that the university administration isn’t trying, but every day I see students packed into the student centre, resorting to sitting on the floor to study or eat because every chair is taken.

Just the other day I spoke to a first-year student who said her very first meal on campus was enjoyed while sitting on the floor because there was nowhere else to sit. Can you imagine how demoralizing this may have felt, when on your first day in an entirely new place (or to use the language of many universities, “your new home”), you are eating your lunch on the floor? Thankfully this individual was optimistic and seemed unfazed, but one can’t help but thinking how many others may have experienced this reality this September.

Trying to avoid the squeeze of the student centre? You may not have much luck anywhere else. Spots in the library are coveted, and studying turns into a veritable Hunger Games during exam time to run to an empty seat before someone else takes it. One of my friends likes to play a game during exams: after they have finished studying for the day, they will roll their chair into the centre of the library and count the number of seconds it takes before someone grabs it. To put the severity of the problem into perspective, in their four years here the count has never gone beyond five seconds. Beyond this being an obviously frustrating situation for students trying to study at an institution to which they pay thousands of dollars to each and every year, there are issues beyond finding adequate study space that merit further discussion.

Accessibility is a major concern. Overcrowding and bottlenecks severely impact the accessible options we have on campus for those who require a mobility aid. For someone who suffers from anxiety, not having the proper resources and space to study in high-pressure, deadline-driven academic classes can be difficult to navigate. For example, a “quick” five minute walk between classes can turn into a fifteen or more minute walk during busy transitions when trying to fight through crowds. The 2011 McMaster Campus Capacity study noted that the University requires 12% more space to meet just basic needs for the school, with 154% of current space to accommodate anticipated growth. I can continue to go on and on with so many problems our university is facing with respect to space, yet year after year it seems that class sizes are continuously increasing. McMaster University is not alone in dealing with a shortage of space and resources for burgeoning student need.

This begs us to ask the question, why do universities do this? Why, if we are in such a dire need for student space across university campuses, do we continuously increase enrolment every year? It all comes down to the funding formula. Right now, Ontario university funding is essentially based on a ‘bums in seats’ model where the more students you enroll, the more money the province will provide to your institution. Unfortunately, Ontario universities are in constant need to create new spaces, renovate and repurpose existing space and have the budget flexibility to create a high-quality post-secondary institution to both learn and work at. Without substantial additional capital investment by the province to supplement the per-student metric, we inevitably will push all of our institutions to overcrowd their campuses- where they will seek additional funding to try and meet the needs of an increased student enrolment, which will consequently create more overcrowding. It seems as though our policy makers need to re-think the funding formula that creates such a vicious cycle in the first place.

While we can all complain about long lines and crowds, I notice my peers talking as if these delays are simply a fact of life at university. It may seem like spending 20 minutes in line to buy a slice of pizza is somehow inconsequential to success in tertiary education. However, one has to think about how chronic congestion is impacting students in other ways. Are there enough faculty members to meet students academic needs? Are students getting enough time with TA’s or are tutorials being forgone to fit space limitations? Are there enough wellness supports available for students to access with an increasing demand for mental health supports? Is there enough recreation space to be able to go to the gym without having to wait in line to use the treadmill?

The answer for many universities is almost certainly no, but this leads me to ask: how do we move forward? From the moment we come to university, we are told by faculty, staff and fellow students alike that managing our time will be the most difficult leap in transitioning from high school. At McMaster, a major focus in transition programming and our welcome week is time management, with residence programming designed to identify this issue, workshops created by our student success centre to address it, and consistent messaging that it’s important that students be careful with their time. I find it ironic that a major stress associated with managing time is trying to account for constant waiting – waiting to find a place to study, buy some food, go to the gym, or talk to your professor. “Good” time management becomes contingent upon your ability to anticipate when the next stoppage will arise; it’s almost as if we are taking diminished campus capacity and the overcrowding our institutions are facing as inevitable.

I’d like to reject this notion. There is the opportunity to change, and it starts with convincing our provincial government that the funding formula negotiations need to account for adequate capital investments. We need to take into consideration that additional funding shouldn’t come at the expense of overcrowding our existing spaces; or, enrolment does increase, it has a corresponding uptick in basic infrastructure and services. We need to ensure that funding is accounted for and scaled with respect to the student experience as a whole including health and wellness, recreation, and access to study areas. In short, we need to ensure that funding is sustainable and comprehensive to ensure that the quality of the student experience is not being compromised by the quantity of their peers. The provincial government sure is wasting a lot of student time: and if time is money, maybe we can afford some new space?

Ryan MacDonald
McMaster Students Union
University Affairs Research Assistant