Trimester trouble

Liam Carrigan examines the big change to university timetables across the sector

As far back as universities can remember, the academic year has been divided into two halves. The semester system has become so ubiquitous to university life we plan our time outside the classroom, our family and work commitments, into 13-week units. But with funding to the tertiary sector in turmoil, an overzealous management class at the helm and institutions competing for enrolments on an international scale, the old ways of doing things were always bound to change.

The trimester was one of many such changes. Private universities like Bond University first introduced them, before they spread to the University of Canberra, the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and at least six other Australian universities. The wisdom behind them was simple – they would allow students to complete a three-year bachelor degree in just two, with the academic year divided into three equally sized blocks.

For the main part, this will mean these blocks, or ‘sessions’ are equal in length. At just ten weeks, they are shorter than semesters, but provide an optional session over summer.

In New South Wales, UTS staff and students have voiced concerns with the trimester system introduced for 2016. According to UTS National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) branch president Vince Caughley, the trimester system compromises working conditions for university staff. “[Trimesters mean the] intensification of work, threat to the academic integrity of subjects being taught and learned in shorter time, and inadequate consultation, planning and information about the implications of the change for staff and students,” he says.

Critics of the system have pointed to the implications for students too, with universities speeding up the “conveyor belt” to push students through degrees quicker and increasing efficiency in a competitive and underfunded sector. University managements naturally reject these claims. “I can see no other reason why the change has been introduced,” says Caughley.

Enoch Mailangi, a third year UTS communications and law student shares similar concerns to the NTEU. “[Trimesters] have been marketed to be to the benefit of students and this is what makes how they were introduced, marketed and sprung on us even more insidious,” he says. “We’re seeing more mechanical learning, less face-to-face teaching, teaching weeks cut, and moving more and more of our education online.”

Caughley is especially critical of the lack of consultation. In a December meeting with the NTEU, the Provost of UTS admitted there should have been better consultation and promised to do better.

University managements and the federal government are the key proponents of the shift to the trimester system. According to UTS Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Shirley Alexander, talks about a trimester system began with pressure from the government over funding and streamlining the allocation of existing (but admittedly scant) university resources. But it’s a shaky argument when you account for the considerable burden such streamlining would have on staff, particularly at a time when the nation’s casual tertiary workforce is at an historic high.

“There could be a case for trimesters if it was about utilizing university facilities throughout more of the year and allowing for an academic research project by concentrating teaching workload in two out of three semesters, says NTEU National President Jeannie Rea. “But this is not the way it is approached. It is about contracting student learning time and increasing academic and professional staff workloads.”

From many students’ perspectives, a trimester model better meets the modern demands placed upon Australian university students, argues Professor Alexander. She explains balanced semesters as a “more student centred approach” that offers a greater degree of flexibility to students who wish to finish their degrees in a shorter time frame and enter into the workforce faster – an argument Jeannie Rea vehemently rejects. In fact, it is precisely the opposite, she says, a “national agenda” for universities to do more and provide less, to increase efficiencies and decrease spending, all in the name of students. “It’s not about the quality of the students’ learning experience,” she says.

Harrison Stanton, a UTS Bachelor of Accounting student, echoes the same benefits of trimesters as Professor Alexander, praising the faster degree completion time, flexibility around work arrangements and better practicality for pursuing summer internships. Stanton explains that trimesters allow essentially what students have asked for years – for summer school classes to be payable by HECS loan. “[The new] option to HECS the summer semester and the ability to spread the same amount of subjects over more semesters arguably results in a decreased workload and better learning and results,” he says.

Professor Alexander argues poor attendance at lectures since implementation of online recordings, for instance, has fundamentally changed the expectations of what students can do on their own and what they need to do on campus. Caughley and the NTEU aren’t convinced. “The benefits of a university education aren’t just about a return on investment or meeting the study requirements of particular subjects – why not just move entirely online?” he says. “It’s the human face-to-face element, meeting other people with new ideas, being exposed to challenging ways of thinking, developing as a person that should always be part of the picture.”

With Education Minister Simon Birmingham this week proclaiming to a conference dinner hosted by Universities Australia that higher education reform is necessary for the federal budget’s “sustainability”, serious questions remain around the national trend of course restructures, staff cuts and “efficient” academic calendars. “The mentality amongst the people making these decisions is out of touch with everyday students,” says Mailangi. “We’re nothing but a figure to them, and that’s why it’s so scary.”