How the holidays can play havoc with international partnerships

Yusra Mouzughi on the challenges of doing business when universities take a break

August 18, 2017
Lying on a sunny beach
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At the end of the academic year, students' marks are released and graduation ceremonies fill us all with pride (and nostalgia). There is also relief with the realisation that the long-awaited summer "break" - when students vacate campus - is upon us. 

Having worked our way through the ups and downs of journal paper submissions; got our head round the TEF results and what it actually means for our teaching; and completed seemingly endless piles of exam scripts that needed to be marked, moderated and progressed; we all now feel we deserve a holiday… and rightly so!  

Though the myth of the three-month summer break still prevails, we all know this is a far cry from reality. People forget that clearing is well and truly in progress, referrals and deferrals will need to be managed, marked and administered and those papers that were rejected or came back with major corrections need to be rewritten. Somewhere among all of this we need to squeeze in our real holiday.

It is not uncommon to hear about academics who have not taken a holiday for years, and end up with accumulated holidays which become even more impossible to take, or are simply thrown away.  

The challenge for many universities, though, is that we are now operating in a 24-hour, 365-day business. Gone are the days when universities had real down time and quiet periods. So whilst staff need to take leave, the "summer recess" that engulfs many university corridors poses a real challenge: guaranteeing that at least a skeleton staff base is available to run the institution efficiently and that the correct staff are available to ensure critical decision making is not hampered when key staff are away.  

Trying to address the holiday conundrum from an international perspective adds a different and complex layer of issues. For example, as part of their internationalisation efforts, many universities are expanding into the Gulf region with different collaboration models - ranging from partnerships, franchises and satellite campuses to fully-fledged overseas operations. Aligning holidays and academic calendars tests the strength of many of these relationships. 

Taking this year as a case in point, Ramadan (the month of fasting observed in the Muslim world) started at the end of May and finished at the end of June. It was followed by (for may Gulf nations) a week-long Eid public holiday. Many people where I work, in Oman, sensibly used the opportunity to link this to their summer vacation (especially sensible when you consider how hot Oman is at this time of year). Working hours are reduced during Ramadan, and the general pace of life slows down considerably during this period. 

This, coupled with a general sense of winding down, was taking place at the height of activity in the Western world where exams were taking place, results were being published and university engines were running full blast.

This mismatch in peak activity periods is set to get worse over the next few years. The timing of Ramadan is linked to the lunar month, and therefore moves back 11 days every year. In 2020 Ramadan will start in late April, and in 2023 in late March. All this is particularly relevant for international collaborations, where universities are trying to align activities and maximise efficiency across different cultural, religious and educational contexts.  

There is very little universities can do to address this other than being fully aware of the situation and allowing as much flexibility in deadlines and work expectation as possible in order to cater for the high and low seasons of every context. Somehow we will muddle through. And yes, I did go on a summer vacation this year - coming back to pick up the reigns at the height of clearing, resits and announcement of high school results.

Yusra Mouzughi is deputy vice-chancellor for academic affairs at Muscat University, where she is a professor of business management. She blogs regularly on the challenges of setting up a new university. Her institution is due to open its doors in Muscat, the capital of Oman, in September. 

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