Flexibility in the long term: Proposals to replace the traditional academic year with two semesters have drawn a mixed response, says Ngaio Crequer

When Stirling University introduced 15-week terms, or 'semesters', the idea was regarded as radical. Now, more than 25 years later, many universities are wondering if they should follow suit and abandon the traditional three-term year.

Last month a committee chaired by Lord Flowers recommended replacing the three-term year with two semesters, the first starting in September. Under the proposals, universities could also introduce a third semester during the summer, creating places for a greater number of students and allowing more flexible use of staff time and buildings.

The scheme is already gathering support. At a conference last week, organised by the University of North London and attended by representatives of all British universities, a straw poll showed that all but a dozen of the 200 delegates were in favour of starting the university year in September.

Stewart Sutherland, now vice- chancellor of the University of London, taught at Stirling for 10 years, and believes its semester system is invigorating. 'They wanted a complete break from the traditional pattern and something quite radical, which is what the new universities were meant to do.

'A 15-week teaching period gives you time to prepare a course of decent length. In a 10-week term you often lose a week at the beginning and a week at the end; 15 weeks gives you more time to develop your subject, and means you can spread out your student assessment,' he says.

But there are also disadvantages, according to Professor Sutherland. 'It is a long teaching haul. You feel quite weary about two-thirds of the way through the semester. And it is hard work for the students, too. If there is coursework assessment throughout the period, students can find it something of a treadmill.'

A break in the middle of the term, however, of three to five days to allow time for consolidation and catching up on reading, usually offsets the disadvantages, he says.

The most striking difference is that a system of semesters allows teaching during the summer period when lecturers, traditionally, have carried out research.

The Flowers report said that only a minority of institutions might be interested in a summer semester. In Scotland a parallel report suggested that a summer semester could be used for remedial teaching, enabling strugglers to catch up.

But making the third semester a remedial one could bring its own problems. Lord Flowers has said that in England institutions that carried out less research and favoured teaching might be the first to take up this option. This in itself could lead to a re-opening of the divide that existed between universities and the former polytechnics.

As one vice-chancellor says: 'We could again see the division between the real universities - those interested in research - and those which just want the numbers passing through the doors.'

Summer semesters could also help to cope with the huge expansion in higher education. The Government's target of one-third of young people in higher education by 2000 has already been reached. This has resulted in a 30 per cent increase, or 300,000 students since 1991/92.

But this idea does not find favour with some lecturers. Last month the Association of University Teachers' council rejected the Flowers report and voted to oppose any move to introduce a third semester in the summer. Monica Hicks, an association spokeswoman, describes the plan as 'a recipe for teaching factories'.

Students do not appear to be put off by the prospect of extended periods of study, however. 'We want a system in which the maximum number of students can go on to higher education, in ways that are flexible - and semesters seem to meet that,' says Louise Clarke, of the National Union of Students.

She did not believe that a summer semester would prevent students from taking vacation jobs to boost their grants. 'Students would be at university for two semesters out of three, so they would be able to get jobs at one stage of the year. It would actually take the pressure off in the summer,' she says.

A survey by Bradford University this year found that almost 70 per cent of the 97 institutions that responded had committed themselves to a semester system, and many were awaiting the conclusions of the Flowers report. The funding councils will help them to pilot courses. Semesters would allow for accelerated degrees, with some students graduating after two years. Alternatively, as semesters would be self-contained units of study, students with, for instance, domestic responsibilities could take one semester a year and spread out their higher education.

The University of Ulster piloted a summer semester this year. About 300 students volunteered for the eight-week course, many having already taken two semesters. 'Most of them used it as a way of accelerating their degrees,' said Professor Peter Roebuck, pro vice-chancellor for academic affairs. 'With the collapse of the student-support system, students are calling for new fast-track courses. They were very positive about it. They told me, 'Look, we'll work like stink, but it is worth it.' '

Perhaps crucially, extra funds for most of these summer students were provided by the Education and Library Boards, which are responsible for student grants in Northern Ireland. The Budget proposals may have knocked some of this on its head: publicly funded tuition fees received by the universities will be almost halved, and as this removes the financial incentives to take more students, many universities will have to limit intakes.

But the universities are convinced that plans for expansion will be back on the agenda in 1996/97. Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England in Birmingham, says: 'This is not a blueprint for the whole system in 1994 - that would be nave. What we are doing is addressing long- term strategic issues. This is end-of- the-century stuff.'

(Photograph omitted)