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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.

Join the conversation

14 Comments sorted by

  1. Kirsti Abbott

    Lecturer, Scientific Practice & Communication

    Hi Phil & Robert,

    I believe UNE (University of New England) have moved to [shorter] Trimesters. Might be worth contacting some academics and students there and getting their perspectives.

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    1. Lauren Murray

      Flaneuse

      In reply to Kirsti Abbott

      I believe the University of Canberra has too. It would be interesting to note whether employers would still expect graduates to have work experience under their belts if the more intensive model was implemented. As it is, I think most law students spend their breaks interning or volunteering to stay competitive in the job market.

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    2. Nick Fisher

      Programmer & Analyst, pt student

      In reply to Kirsti Abbott

      My own experience as a student has been that it has made each trimester very rushed. The courses are the same but you have fewer weeks which is very difficult for part time students balancing full time work and study as you can't always put in extra hours to catch up. I thought the old system worked better as a part time student where there were a small number of units available to do over the summer if you wanted to get an extra unit out of the way, but you only do one instead of two so the shorter time is not so bad and you normally have extra time over christmas/new year.

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    3. Mat Hardy

      Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

      In reply to Nick Fisher

      Rushed is one thing. But don't forget the fact that you are paying the same HECS amount for less teaching. Just like the great travesty circa 1998 when stubbies of beer all seemed to go from 375 ml to 345 ml for the same price of a carton.

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    4. Nick Fisher

      Programmer & Analyst, pt student

      In reply to Mat Hardy

      yes this certainly has occured to us ! i suppose if the stubbies had the same amount of alcohol but in more concentrated form...i still preferred it the way it was though.

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  2. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    Tudge may have a generic image of University students having a non-stop drinking partying on good time of it with non academic activities whilst trying to fit studying in and also in the breaks and that possibly occurs with a few who might not measure up too well when it comes to outcomes.

    The situation will obviously vary not just with individual attitudes but also with courses taken and perhaps even with cultural backgrounds when it comes to international students for whom no doubt a tighter…

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  3. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    Deakin moves to 3 x 11 trimesters from 2014. Currently we have 2x12 and 1x11.

    I'm a bit ambivalent about it. We've dropped from 13 week semesters to 11 week ones in a very few years. That means a bit of compression in what we're delivering, but that just means putting the onus for getting up to speed and revising back on the students.

    I'm more cynical about the reasoning for it. It seems that much of this re-formatting is all about funneling as many international students through Introduction to Commerce and the like during the summer months. Then chopping the other trimesters down in a bit of window dressing to say that all students are treated equally.

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  4. Adam Blanch

    Provisional Psychologist

    I was at Southern Cross when they moved to 3 shorter semesters. Student dropout rates increased significantly, lecture attendance fell dramatically, counselling for stress went through the roof, marks fell dramatically and student life crumbled. We had the same workload with 3 less weeks to do it. Its all about being able to flog 2 year fast track degrees to overseas students, and it will destroy academic quality in this country.

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  5. Giles Pickford
    Giles Pickford is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Retired, Wollongong

    During my breaks I went back to help Dad on the farm.

    I think the Tudge proposal suffers from the same blind spots that the broader community has. The masses think that academics are lazy time wasters and universities have always suffered from this misperception.

    Applying assembly line logic to the long complicated act of growing up is a travesty. It belittles the maturing individual.

    Why not work on making weddings quicker, or making wine complete its maturation process in 5 weeks instead of 5 years?

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  6. David Glover

    Communicator

    While I think the question of accelerating learning is more complex than Mr Tudge's proposed solution suggests, I do think there's a case for making better use of our universities' infrastructure.

    At the moment, most of their very expensive land, buildings and resources is idle roughly half the time. How about interleaving one or two more semesters with the current ones?

    This would enable us to increase the universities' student capacity with minimal capital expenditure, the main additional costs being additional academic staff to teach the 'parallel' semesters and, presumably, a more modest increase in administrative staff.

    Overall costs per student could be reduced without compromising any aspect of their education or tertiary experience. University employment could be increased.

    The high A$ and increased investment in universities throughout Asia will inevitably make it harder for us to compete for international students. This could help.

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  7. Craig Watkins

    logged in via Facebook

    I suspect there is scope for a well-structured article in response to the Alan Trudge comments, but my impressions are that this article falls well short. We need considered debate and discussions on what are crucial matters for our society. This article does not appear to lay the groundwork for that. I might be a bit harsh, but that is just my feeling...

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  8. Rod Govers

    Retired IT administrator

    From a parent's point of view, my daughter's one year at Uni of Canberra was very expensive in terms of support costs. Her first year course consisted of three semesters, the second being a repeat of the first. This meant she spent a third of the year with no lectures etc.

    Despite that I was still responsible for 48 weeks of on-campus accommodation at $240pw plus her living expenses which I will still be paying off for a couple of years yet (a bank loan).

    I can't help but see a three year degree course that could probably be done in 18 - 24 months and save money for all concerned.

    On top of that, how many courses could now be done via the Internet and avoid costs such as accommodation, commuting etc.?

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  9. John Kelmar

    Small Business Consultant

    The academic year is fine the way it is, as Academic Staff also are required to undertake research, write academic papers, attend meetings in their field, prepare new courses, update material for old courses, mark student work, and finalise results so the students can graduate.

    Furthermore, students need time off from study to earn money to fund their courses, since the Government has seen the need to continually increase the fees for university courses. Some of the job that students undertake…

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  10. Peter Bentley

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Interesting article, though I couldn't get the URL to the Tudge article to work, so I am not sure about the argument for the 3 trimester teaching period. Does it mean that a 3 year degree could be completed in 2 years? Does it mean students take fewer classes per trimester compared to the 2 semester system? Or does it just increase the teaching requirements of a 3 year degree?

    The move to a 3 trimester system would not necessarily increase teaching workloads for individual academics or take away…

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