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Opinion //

Op-ed: The dangers of a 12 week semester

The SRC President makes the case against a slashed semester.

On Tuesday, the 4th of May, the Academic Board will vote on the Academic Calendar for 2022-2026. The Board will have to choose between either a 12 week semester, or a substantially altered 13 week semester, in which the 13th week has no new content or substantive teaching. There’s nothing new about this proposal. It’s been defeated twice before at the Academic Board (in 2017 and again in 2020), and universities like ANU have only been recent adopters. But when it comes to 12 week semesters, one thing is clear: it’s a bad idea.

It’s hard to be a student in 2021. Students these days work long hours in casualised jobs to support themselves. Many students face structural barriers that prevent them from fully participating in university such as being Indigenous, being first in family, being working class or having a disability. Since the passage of the Job-ready Graduates Bill in 2020, students are also paying higher fees and can be summarily kicked off their Commonwealth Supported Place if they don’t pass 50% of their units in a given year. To top off all of this, students just don’t have much time or energy to dedicate exclusively to their study. 

All of these problems are simply going to be made worse by a shorter semester. A shorter semester means that students have less time to dedicate to their studies. In many disciplines, it would be totally unsound to reduce the amount of content or assessment, which means that students will need to do the same amount of work in less time. This is going to greatly affect students’ mental health, worsen their stress levels and increase the likelihood of them failing their units. The proposal argues that a 12 week semester would remove the “light introductory course guidance weeks”, but it is these weeks that are essential for students to get acquainted with their study. An extra week in the semester also helps students catch up with missed work, which is essential in particularly demanding courses and disciplines. With a shorter semester, students will also be paying more money for less time, an outcome that is especially problematic for full-fee paying international students. 

12 week semesters are also bad news for academic staff. Staff are going to see more intense workloads if this proposal passes. More assessments and more content are going to be crammed into less time, which means more teaching, more marking and less time to prepare for classes. If staff want to reduce their workload, they’re going to have to reduce the content they teach, or reduce the amount of assessment. In many courses, this is simply untenable. Similarly for casual staff, one less week of semester means one less week of teaching income and a similar increase in workload.

All of these concerns have been empirically verified. In a recent survey carried out by the SRC, 93% of undergraduate students preferred 13 week semesters to 12 week semesters. Similar results were reflected in a survey carried out by SUPRA. Students expressed that a reduction of the semester length would hurt them in a number of ways. Many students were concerned about workload, increasing fees and greater stress.

The proposal for 12 week semesters offers few tangible benefits. The proposal claims to allow for greater intensive teaching in the summer and winter breaks. However, there is no reason why increasing the number of intensives cannot happen in the current semester structure. For every student who benefits from increased intensives, there are also many more who are totally ambivalent to them. 

Increased intensives also make life much more difficult for professional staff. As previously argued by Grant Wheeler from the CPSU, some intensives start in January, forcing the Student Centre to expedite results processes from the preceding semester. This is a serious problem for international students, who may face visa problems if they cannot enrol in intensives on time and meet their mandatory study requirements. This increased stress is borne by staff in the Student Centre.

It’s not worth sacrificing our semesters in the name of increased intensives. On the 4th of May, I’m going to vote in favour of maintaining a 13 week semester. I encourage all other members of the Academic Board to do the same. 

Swapnik Sanagavarapu is the President of the University of Sydney’s Student Representative Council.

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