Thursday, 12 February 2015

Why the University of Bath Academic Year should remain as it is

I try not to use this blog as a soapbox, but sometimes needs must. My home university are proposing to change from a two semester academic year to one with three terms, with assessment at the end. There is a petition here to protest this, so I thought I'd post, in full, the email which I sent to the discussion panel and the Pro-VC for Learning & Teaching's office.

To the consultation committee;

I was confused and a bit disappointed to see the ‘all-student consultation’ for the proposed changes to the academic year. As well as my strong belief that these changes would be bad for students, I have qualms about the way in which this consultation is being run, which I’ll outline first.

I heard about the consultation through its being shared on Facebook. Surely you cannot claim to have consulted all students (as the name ‘all-student consultation’ would suggest) without every student being contacted by the Pro-VC for Learning and Teaching or indeed the VC herself. You have the technology and students lists to do this. I have seen a claim that doing this through the SSLCs suffices; it does not, for various reasons. One reason is that that places an awful lot of pressure on that one person to collate opinions of all members of their course. On such an important subject and at such a busy time of year, this should not be relied on. The second, more personally pertinent, reason is that many students are not represented at all in SSLCs: this could be because they are not on campus. I am (as far as I know) the only student on my year of my course this year (BSc Politics with Economics with Study Year Abroad; the vast majority of students off-campus are on work placements) and as such have already slipped through various gaps in being informed about important things. I do not believe that you will be able to claim that an ‘all-student consultation’ has taken place unless a call for feedback is sent out at least a week before the closing date (that is, by close of business on Friday 13 February); the legitimacy of any decisions will be called into question unless this happens.

And now to my actual feedback on the proposed changes to the academic year. Put simply, it’s a bad idea to change from the current semester-based system to terms with assessment at the end of the year.

In the consultation you allege that the Inter-Semester Break is ‘unnecessary.’ It is not. In the entire academic year, from October to June, it is the only time when one feels able to relax without the guilt of not tending to an ever-lengthening to-do list. It provides the opportunity to recover after the length and intensity of the first semester, evaluate one’s organisational and coping strategies, and improve them for the next semester. The proposed longer vacations at Christmas and Easter would be vacations, but not holidays: academic work is, after all, never really finished. There is always more reading that can be done. Therefore any students with a tendency to become anxious, overwhelmed, or worried, will be on ‘high-alert’ (so to speak) for the full length of the year, which (as if to add insult to injury) would now extend into June. The need for a complete break in the middle of the intense year cannot be underestimated, and to ignore it would be to ignore all the work the Students’ Union have been doing on encouraging better recognition of Mental Health issues.

Now I have talked about why the Inter-Semester Break is crucial, it is time to move on to the benefits of having two separate semesters, as we currently do. To illustrate some of these benefits, I’m going to use examples from my own experiences so far at the University. In my first year, I took the unit ES10010 Introduction to Economics. This was a full-year unit, with an examination in January worth 10% of the total mark. Despite working hard ahead of the examination, I did very badly (I later worked out that this was at least partly because the textbook which the lecturer had alleged contained all of the material we needed was missing entire parts of the course…) and was able to seek feedback from the lecturer. Notwithstanding the difficulties I faced in doing so (the lecturer had gone to Asia for over a month and not set up an out-of-office AutoReply, so I thought he was just ignoring me), the forced evaluation of progress at the end of the first semester helped me to realise that something was wrong. Had there not been this evaluation (that is, had the unit been taught all the way through to the summer as it would be in the proposed termly structure) I would have probably carried on with my misguided trust in the lecturer’s assertion that the recommended textbook contained all the material, and failed the unit. In my second year I was also incredibly grateful for having two separate semesters. I was ill for seven or eight weeks of the Autumn Term, and then suffered a nervous breakdown towards the end of the semester. The University’s counselling service, incidentally, was incredibly helpful and I couldn’t have recovered without it. Once the semester was over and done with, and I’d had the week in between to recover (see the above on why that week is crucial) I was able to make a fresh start. New courses, new seminar groups, new notes. I was able to forget all of the things which had been fudged or slipped off to-do lists, and start again, on top of things. There are all manner of reasons why people might need a fresh start, and this is just my experience as to why being able to have one made a difference to me.

I mentioned above one qualm about the idea of the academic year extending into June; there are two more. One is that it makes the costs of student life slightly more manageable (and anything that does this in such an expensive city is welcome). Although private sector rents are paid for the entire calendar year, things like internet contracts, bus passes, and so on are measurably cheaper with a year extending from October to May than from October to June. Finishing earlier allows halls contracts to be shorter (without resorting to the almost-universally-disliked format of term-time only contracts where one must remove all of one’s belongings during vacations), thus reducing costs to first-years and allowing the university to make more money from renting rooms out as conference and holiday accommodation. It also allows a longer period of time without the full student body on site for things like refurbishments and maintenance work. The other reason why finishing earlier rather than later is that it allows more flexibility around summer jobs and internships. After my first year, I was able to beat the other returning university students in my hometown to the very few summer jobs, and I had actually started my summer job before some of my high-school friends were finished with university for the year. After my second year, I was able to properly prepare for my summer internship, which I started before the end of June. People from other universities seemed to have felt incredibly rushed, with some people finishing their last exams and deadlines on the Friday immediately before starting work – stress-inducing even for the calmest of them.

One of the things which the University appears to pride itself on the most is the good track record of its students and graduates who obtain prestigious jobs and internships. Having completed an internship with one of the UK’s biggest graduate employers last summer, I feel qualified to comment on this. The long-term nature of projects during the academic year is something I have found difficult in the past: from starting work on an essay in the first or second week of the semester (even just the thinking and reading) to handing it in can often be three months or more. This would be even longer in a yearly-assessment system. Trying to keep one project going for that long is, quite honestly, difficult. The bizarre thing is that this is not a skill that’s needed in many workplaces, which of course work more on a weekly and monthly cycle, with procedures that repeat quarterly, six-monthly, and annually. Although I was involved during my internship in many long-term planning meetings, there were very few projects that were worked on by one person over a long period of time. If the University wants to make its undergraduates better prepared for the world of work, moving to a longer cycle of projects is not the way to do it.

I want also to address the assumption in the discussion paper that the timing of Easter must have such an influence over the shape of the academic year. Indeed, although Easter was indeed late in 2014, it would still have been possible to have the same pattern of nine teaching weeks before the vacation and two after that we had in 2013, by placing the Easter vacation in the two weeks leading up to the Easter weekend rather than the two weeks following it (that is, in weeks 28 and 29). It’s also important to mention that the Spring vacation does not necessarily have to contain the Easter weekend. In 2008, Easter fell very early (March 23) and all the schools following my county’s term dates (Buckinghamshire) had the Friday and Monday of the Easter Weekend off, and then a couple more weeks of teaching, followed by the two-week Spring holiday in April as usual (You can read the County Council’s documentation of their decision here).

Lastly, I’d like to mention that one of the many reasons that people choose to come to Bath is that it is a bit different to other universities. We’re smaller, not in the Russell Group, don’t have a full range of subjects, and have a relatively short and intense academic year in which we all work hard, after which we all need to relax. I’d hate for one of the great things that makes Bath special to disappear.

Thank you for your time.

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