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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 Students and staff have already withdrawn their support for a two-semester rather than three-term year in a number of recent cases.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."