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Idle time? Why we don’t need a longer academic year

This week Coalition MP Alan Tudge wrote a piece in the Australian Financial Review calling for an end to the 26-week academic year. In his article, he said students were spending the remainder of their…

A longer academic year would have serious drawbacks for university students and staff. Academic image from www.shutterstock.com

This week Coalition MP Alan Tudge wrote a piece in the Australian Financial Review calling for an end to the 26-week academic year.

In his article, he said students were spending the remainder of their year in “low-skilled jobs, holidays or idleness”. He also argues that a longer academic year would bring greater productivity, noting that students can graduate more speedily and enter the workforce at lower cost, with universities able to drive more value out of their infrastructure.

But how practical is this plan? And will it bring the benefits Tudge claims?

First, let’s look at the timetable. The 26 week academic year doesn’t really exist. Universities have two 12 or 13 week semesters, each bookended by orientation, study break and examinations. Add an intra-semester break and you’re at 18 weeks per semester, or 36 weeks for two. Assuming no breaks between semesters, you’d still need two more weeks beyond the 52 in your calendar to fit in three semesters.

Sure, we could force everyone to do three yet-shorter semesters; but what would be the effect? A recent study from the Australian Council for Educational Research shows students are already struggling to find the mythical 10–12 required hours per week for each subject. In reality it’s far fewer hours. If we shorten semesters so we can squeeze in another, we’ll need to find a way to backfill the other responsibilities our students have: working, caring for others or participating in the community.

Cutting down on time for out-of-semester idleness sounds like an attractive option; nobody likes waste. But the idea that students are bludgers when not in class offends the liberal spirit of university education. Students also need time for informal, self-directed learning. In our undergraduate off-weeks we learned languages (ancient, modern and computer), read the key texts in our fields, and volunteered for community organisations. These were extras that we couldn’t reasonably expect classes to provide for us.

Labelling the jobs that students do in their off weeks as “low-skilled” devalues their worth; and to some regional communities the seasonal academic calendar helps keep industries going. For many students, keeping their head above water means doing low-skilled work. Surviving on the A$200 per week ($265 including rent assistance) maximum from Centrelink is difficult, particularly given the high cost of living in our capital cities.

So some work, on-semester or off, is necessary for some students to get by. We know that there’s a point where too much paid employment hurts learning and engagement, so it makes sense to bundle that work in the off-semester weeks. But with fewer non-teaching weeks, students will have to choose between cash or study – unless Tudge is also advocating for an increase in payments to students.

We also know that when students get too poor (in time or money) it can lead them to undesirable activities like plagiarism.

Although most universities don’t offer more than two “standard” 12/13-week semesters, most offer a shorter third semester. This offers those students who want to study over summer (and can afford it) the option to do so. For those whom it suits, learning outcomes and satisfaction aren’t really affected by semester length – except in the short term, where students of shorter semesters actually do better. Usually these subjects are catch-up for students who struggled over the year, or special interest topics.

As for the savings that Tudge expects from better exploiting the infrastructure around the year, it only applies to the relatively small proportion of our space dedicated to teaching. All the research labs, the postgraduate study areas and the offices that make up the bulk of university floorspace are in use throughout the year. In fact, they go into overdrive during the break.

The lecture theatres are often empty, it’s true; but we’re moving away from lecture theatres anyway; so this marginal waste is likely to be slighter every year.

Nowhere in Tudge’s blueprint is an appreciation for what academics do in their non-teaching weeks. For a typical academic, teaching and research make up equal parts of their workload, and research is more intensive in the non-teaching weeks. More teaching weeks equals fewer research weeks which equals less research productivity.

Australia’s excellent performance in international university rankings is heavily influenced by the quantity and quality of our research outputs.

Tudge expresses a desire for Australian higher education to remain internationally competitive. Compromising research and the student experience with quick degrees is not the way to achieve it.