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University considering shortening semesters

The University Executive is considering shortening semester teaching weeks from 13 weeks to 12.

For many University of Sydney students the dream of longer holidays could soon become a reality, with the University Executive considering shortening semester teaching weeks from 13 weeks to 12.

The University Executive gave a ‘general directional endorsement’ for the proposed cut back in their last meeting, however this does not mean the changes are guaranteed. The endorsement gives the green light for the brains behind the proposal — Deputy Vice Chancellor (Education) Pip Pattison and Deputy Vice Chancellor (Registrar) Tyrone Carlin — to talk to stakeholders and put a final proposal to the Executive to vote on.

Carlin said the proposal was not about shortening semester lengths per se, but about “the educational outcomes that we are able to offer our students”.

“Throughout Europe and North America and Asia, [Universities] run fantastic summer programs but … at the moment, our semester break in the winter is so short that (for all practical purposes) our students are unable to participate in these activities,” he said.

“Last year we started a discussion about whether the University had an appetite to review its semester arrangements to better enable our students to participate in these sorts of activities.”

The decision aligns with the University’s 2016-2020 Strategic Plan, which includes an aim to enable at least 50 per cent of students to undertake an international experience as part of their studies, a 30 per cent increase on the current figure. The University has also begun signing ‘super-exchange partnerships’ with overseas universities that will allow up to 100 students to go on exchange per year.

The Executive initially considered preserving the existing semester lengths and increasing the length of the
winter break by cutting into the summer holidays.

“We could do that, but it would raise a series of profound practical challenges that would be felt on virtually every dimension of the University: limit summer break research programs, reduce summer school offerings, cause administrative carry-overs,” Carlin told Honi.

Carlin assured Honi they were consulting with various stakeholders, including the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), residential colleges, the University of Sydney Union (USU) and Sydney University Sport and Fitness (SUSF), to assess the impact of these changes.

For subjects with reading weeks, the change would mean having fewer free weeks to catch up on content. For the many subjects without reading weeks, course  coordinators would be required to either reduce or compress their content.

Carlin said “our responsibility is to put our students first by opening up the space to build richer and richer experiences”, and that the move was not uncommon amongst Australia’s top higher-learning institutions.

“If you look at the Group of Eight [Universities] and the practice of semester length, there are many of the top flight institutions who moved to a 12 week teaching model — Melbourne, ANU, Monash, Adelaide,” he said.

“There is the opportunity for students to start practical work earlier in the semester and we have models of practice at other leading
institutions that achieve the same academic outcomes.”

The University of Technology Sydney (UTS) transitioned to trimesters last year, meaning their semesters were cut back from 13 teaching weeks to 11 with an extra week at the start for ‘self study’.

As a UTS student told Honi, “they’ve basically had to cram an extra week of work, or just miss out on more tutorial discussion in favour of covering content.”

“We basically begin work on all of our assignments from day one and there is no sort of introduction, not even like a week.”

UTS Students’ Association President, Beatrice Tan, said that changes to semester length can be successful, but there have been issues in how subjects adapt to the structure.

“Some subjects didn’t account for how the changes would affect assessment deadlines … this meant that assessments were due before even having had face to face interaction with their tutors, for others this meant that they were doing assessments for one subject concurrently,” she said.

The Executive will vote on the final proposal in an upcoming meeting.