Semesters? Give us a break

The problems faced by universities in trying to move away from the traditional three-term structure to a long-haul, two-term system have dampened enthusiasm for change, says Stephen Pritchard

The move to introduce semesters to more British universities could falter if campus opposition grows next term. Students and staff have already withdrawn their support for a two-semester rather than three-term year in a number of recent cases.

Problems with fitting in examinations, the long and tiring nature of the semester and difficulties for academic staff in finding time to prepare work are behind the resistance.

Mounting opposition has surprised some governing bodies. Moves away from the traditional three-term system had previously been backed by much of higher education. The National Union of Students, for example, supports semesterisation, believing it will widen access by allowing more flexible, modular courses to be created.

Student leaders do recognise the difficulties of changing the format of the academic year, a system which has been around for centuries. Until recently, only one university - Stirling - differed, with two 15-week terms. But at the end of 1993, a committee chaired by Lord Flowers recommended that other institutions should follow Stirling's lead, and there was a steady flow of universities adopting a semester system.

The main obstacle they have faced is that the rest of the academic world, not least schools and local education authorities, still adheres to the three-term model. This has meant grafting the new system on to the old, and the result has been, in many cases, a very tight time-frame for admissions, and late grants for students.

Last term, Hull students' union voted to oppose the university's introduction of semesters, although in the past it had backed the proposals. Academic staff are also worried.

"The students' union has been very concerned about it," says Alan Bolchover, the secretary and treasurer. "Are we going in saying it will all sort itself out, or are we looking at the other universities that are semesterising, looking at their problems, and taking them on?"

One area of concern, not just at Hull, is setting exams at the end of each semester. This is necessary to create a modular study system, but it is far from popular. As it is very difficult to fit in a 15-week period before Christmas, most universities have opted for 12 weeks, a break, and then three weeks of examinations or assessment, followed by an inter- semester break, usually a week.

Both staff and students find this a long haul, as it leaves little time for catching up between modules or for course preparation. One of the intended benefits of a semester system is that students can choose their next module on the basis of their performance in the previous semester, a process known as informed progression. In many cases, this is not happening.

"The majority of universities that have gone in for semesters have superimposed it on the standard term structure," explains Dr Phil Margham, head of the academic development unit at Liverpool John Moores University and chair of the Northern universities' working group on modularisation, semesterisation and credit accumulation and transfer.

Liverpool John Moores has itself run into difficulties with student opposition, which is focused on the timetabling of examinations. "We have gone for a more radical solution and divided the year into two periods," says Dr Margham. "We've gone through the first half of the year before Christmas. The only others doing this are Stirling."

The main problem has been the lack of a mid-semester break in the current structure; the university will introduce one if the academic schools wish it. "There is tremendous pressure for those modules where there are exams at the end," adds Dr Margham. "They finish only a few days before Christmas."

A substantial minority of universities remain unconvinced of the value of semesters. At Dundee, opposition from students and academics overturned a narrow Senate vote last year to make the change; the second vote also prevents the debate being reopened for five years.

Others, such as Warwick, oppose semesters outright. "If you are going to be one of the top research institutions, you have to give staff time to do research," says the university spokesman Peter Dunn. "Semesters increase teaching loads and reduce time for that kind of research. We don't see the need: if it's not broken, don't fix it."

At Sheffield, which could also stake a claim as a leading research institution, the attitude is rather different. Ray Goodchild, the academic secretary, points out that the switch to semesters this academic year was essential for the move to modular courses.

"The students were taking a fairly mature attitude and trying to see benefits from it," he explains. "There have been teething problems, but quite clearly it's a radical change, and needs radical adjustments."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

Reach Volunteering: Would you like to volunteer your expertise as Chair of Governors for Livability?

Voluntary and unpaid, reasonable expenses are reimbursable: Reach Volunteering...

Ashdown Group: Payroll Administrator - Buckinghamshire - £25,000

£20000 - £25000 per annum + substantial benefits: Ashdown Group: Finance Admin...

Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrator - Windows, Linux - Central London

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrat...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?