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“Staff and students are going to suffer irreparably”: Forum held against 12 week semesters

Panelists discussed how the proposal was a cost-cutting measure which would damage the quality of education.

Photo: Jayfel Tulabing Lee

Students and staff held a forum at the Royal Hotel yesterday night where a panel of speakers discussed their concerns about the University’s proposed change to 12 week semesters. 

The forum was moderated by SRC Education Officers Madeleine Clark and Tom Williams, and discussed the University’s reasons for the proposal, its potential impact on staff in the Student Centre, loss of wages for teaching staff, adverse impacts on international students, STEM students, law students, and students with structural disadvantages.

The University’s rationalisation for the proposal

Opening the forum, Clark noted that the proposal to move to 12 week semesters is situated within a wider context of decades of cuts to staff and courses in the name of austerity.

The University has said that the change would create more opportunities for intensive teaching between semesters including internships and placements, but SRC President Swapnik Sanagavarapu believes that “the fundamental reason at the end of the day is cost-cutting.”

“I’ve pressed University management on this a couple of times, and they’ve conceded to me that there’s no reason why intensive learning and teaching is necessarily mutually exclusive with maintaining the current semester length,” he said.

Student Centre staff will be placed under more stress

Grant Wheeler of the Community & Public Sector Union NSW (CPSU) highlighted how the shift to more intensive units would cause “massive problems” for staff at the Student Centre and adversely affect their mental wellbeing over the Christmas period when they are unable to take leave.

Wheeler explained that, because intensives begin as early as 6 January, there is not enough time for Student Centre staff to process results from the year before, causing a “scramble” to seek authorisations for earlier enrolments, often from teaching staff who are themselves on leave.

“The people at the top don’t deal with the direct consequences of that problem; it is the people at the coalface who bear the burden of the consequences of bad decisions,” Wheeler said, arguing that the University’s consultation process has been unsatisfactory.

A ‘disaster’ for students on placements, STEM students and law students

Panelists also refuted the claim that the proposal would allow more opportunities for placements, suggesting that it showed the University’s fundamental disconnect from the student experience.

Vice President of Women in Engineering and Junior Vice President of SUEUA, Bella Anderssen, said that students who require placement periods will be forced to do them over the summer.

“I think for a student who may be supporting themselves financially or just need a break, that is disastrous… [the University’s] justification that there will be more placements is ridiculous,” she said.

Moreover, Anderssen said that for STEM students who do labs on a weekly rotation, a 12 week semester would mean that “one group has to do their lab in week one when they’ve learnt absolutely no content and can’t familiarise themselves, or that they cut the lab altogether.”

Sydney University Law Society Education Officer Sinem Kirk also echoed concerns that the proposal would degrade learning conditions for students: “Law is very reading intensive — that one extra week is very important for students to catch up on their content,” she said.

International students will pay higher rates while receiving less support

President of the Sydney University Postgraduate Association (SUPRA), Minran Liu, highlighted how cuts to academic staff and the length of the semester would damage the University’s international reputation and draw in less students.

“International students pay a large amount of money for their education and the survey has already demonstrated that most of them prefer 13 weeks — 12 weeks makes the education quality worse,” he said.

Wheeler echoed that the change would cause problems for international students, particularly due to enrolment issues around intensives. “The last thing we want to see is student visas jeopardised because intensives have been moved forward and the administration getting them ready to start those intensives is not up to scratch,” he said.

Increased pressure and loss of wages for teaching staff

Sanagavarapu said that “the 12 week semester proposal betrays such a fundamental ignorance on the part of University management about what it’s like to be a student in 2021, and what it’s like to be a member of staff, particularly a casual in 2021.”

Sanagavarapu noted that the reduction in semester length would impose a ‘trilemma’ on staff, who will be forced to choose between maintaining the level of assessments, workload or course content. Under the proposed 12 week semester calendar, it would be impossible to maintain all three, he argued. 

“Management believes that they can do these things without increasing the workload of staff and students, not taking into account the fact that most students these days do not live on campus, they don’t spend all of their time studying, most of them work jobs, pay rent and have to support themselves.”

“God help you if you’re first in family, or Indigenous or from a working class background or have a disability or face whatever other structural restraints to education that may exist, and God help you if you’re a casual,” he said.

Fighting back begins with ‘disruption’

The proposal will be voted on in the Academic Board on 4 May. Sanagavarapu and Liu, who both have seats on the board, said that they would voice significant opposition to it. 

Staff representatives called on students to protest the “latest in a long line of cuts” and join them at the picket line when they go on strike this year.

There will be a protest against 12 week semesters organised next Thursday 29 April at 1pm outside Fisher Library.

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