Why modules are all the mode

Philip Schofield looks at the pros and cons of the semester system for employers and students
Almost a third of school-leavers now enter higher education (compared with one in seven in 1987) and the Confederation of British Industry would like this to increase to 40 per cent. There have also been big increases in the numbers of part-time and mature students. Moreover, a growing proportion enter higher education with qualifications other than the traditional A-levels or Highers. This will have wider implications in the long term for business.

Reflecting these changes in demand, and the need to harmonise higher education throughout the European Union and beyond, universities and colleges have been initiating changes to make our system more open and flexible.

Many higher education institutions have already restructured some of their degree courses by means of credits, modules and semesters, and more plan to do so. The basic idea is that to earn a Bachelor's degree you have to accumulate 360 credits. These are earned by successfully completing a number of self-contained modules, each worth a given number of points. Core modules in a course are compulsory; others can be selected from a wide choice in the same or other departments. The credits earned can be transferred to other courses and other institutions. This means that each module must be assessed separately on its completion - by examination, course-work assessment, or a combination of both.

Modules fit more easily into two 15-week semesters a year than the traditional three 10-week terms. Semesters permit at least 10 weeks' teaching, and two to three weeks for exams as well as time for revision and tutorials.

Modular courses and semesterisation are also encouraged by the European Commission. Synchronisation of the academic year will make student and academic exchanges simple and a European-wide credit transfer system will encourage the harmonisation of academic and professional qualifications. Moreover, the Commission believes that a credit-based system will facilitate continuing education and permit new combinations of work and study.

The 29 British institutions running a two-semester system in the past academic year did not synchronise their timings. First semesters started anytime between early September and mid-October and finished between mid- December and mid-February. Second semesters began between mid-January and late February and ended between mid-May and early July. Exams took place around the last fortnight of each semester.

This new system has major implications for recruiters and job-seekers. A briefing document, prepared two years ago by the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) for its members, noted that semesterisation will disrupt the traditional milk-round of campus recruitment visits. Not only would the interview programme be disrupted, it said, but also the flow of applications as students would have the "rival 'distraction' of examinations to study for and sit at the end of the semester". It added: "Semesterisation will shorten the time available for career fairs and presentations, and may diminish the popularity of Christmas courses'.

Keith Dugdale, director of the University of Manchester and Umist careers service, confirms the AGR view. His service has seen the milk-round squeezed into February and March. With 140 visiting employers, this has created major scheduling problems. Employers have also had to bring their closing dates for applications forward. Moreover, because of the clash of timing with revision and assessments, students have had to become more selective in the number of applications they make - so the number of applications to firms is declining.

Employers are offering more Christmas courses, but Mr Dugdale says students have to choose between revising for their finals or the courses - and "the brightest put their exams first". There are also 80 to 90 employer presentations on campus, but by November students stop attending because of their assessments.

Nevertheless, Mr Dugdale is optimistic. He describes these as the problems of a system in transition. As employers recruit fewer graduates as management trainees and more to fill immediate vacancies, more employers are recruiting just before the graduates are required. This "just in time" recruitment will mean a move away from the traditional annual cycle to an all-year activity.

Graduate recruiters can expect to encounter candidates with unfamiliar degrees obtained by earning credits from a number of discipline areas. They will also meet candidates from modular courses who finished their degrees by part-time study, as is common in other developed countries.

The AGR briefing notes: "One problem with modular degrees is that employers may not understand what such a degree comprises. Variety of choice is a good thing; too much choice is confusing. This is especially relevant to graduates with modular degrees who have come into higher education through non-traditional routes as ... many employers are now pre-selecting on A-levels."

Obviously, recruiters need to adapt to the new system. Above all, they need to be more flexible in their selection criteria, especially at the pre-selection stage when sifting application forms to decide whom to call to first interview.

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