The interim report from a committee on the academic year, chaired by Lord Flowers, says that student throughput could be increased by between 16 and 50 per cent by more summer teaching, by changing the starting date of the academic year and by dividing students into groups, with each group attending for different parts of the year.
It also notes that universities may be able to shorten the normal three- year degree courses if they teach during the summer, though it does not consider this proposal in detail.
The report, released at a conference of the Higher Education Funding Council in Birmingham, won immediate support from John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, who welcomed the proposal for a more flexible academic year.
Universities believe that they are under pressure from the Government to take in more students without a corresponding increase in funds, at a time when complaints of overcrowding on campuses are growing. They fear that standards may suffer as undergraduates jostle for position in libraries and laboratories. Ministers are also interested in the idea of shorter and cheaper degree courses.
Lord Flowers told the conference that some institutions were already considering changes which would radically alter the conventional arrangement of three 10-week terms.
He said: 'These institutions are realising that changes can bring benefits including enabling staff to make more productive use of their time, and in particular having a longer unbroken period free from undergraduate teaching.'
Mr Patten, who is anxious to persuade even greater numbers of students to enter higher education, said that the Government would welcome a reform of the academic year. 'I look forward to a more flexible academic year in the future. Less than half the entrants to higher education are now young people with A-levels studying full-time. New models for the curriculum will offer different ways of learning which will suit the students who do not fit the traditional pattern.
'It would be welcome if, at the same time as enhancing the quality of higher education, such changes to the academic year had the effect of increasing the numbers of students who could be taught.'
The report by a committee set up a year ago makes no recommendations. It suggests that universities which carry out the most research and those which rely on conference income in the vacations may not wish to introduce a longer teaching year.
Lord Flowers, a former vice-chancellor of London University, said staff who were concerned about the impact on research and the possibility of more teaching would have to be reassured that the changes would have advantages.
Universities would need to consider whether those teaching during the summer should have another period in the year free from teaching. They would also have to look at the effect on students who might need to earn money in the summer to support themselves for the rest of the year.
However, he argued that the problems were not insuperable. 'The prize for overcoming them is increased student throughput with reduced pressure on existing facilities and improved student experience in many respects,' he said.
The committee's final report will be published in the autumn.Reuse content