Leader: Three into two does not go for degree courses

October 4, 2002

US universities swear by them, and they have been making apparently unstoppable progress in the UK for more than a decade. So why are some universities abandoning semesters to return to a three-term year? The answer lies in the second thoughts about learning and assessment that have punctuated the A-levels debate and apply equally to degrees.

The 15-week modular courses that dominate higher education are convenient for credit accumulation and transfer, and offer students maximum choice. The system encourages breadth of study and, in dividing subjects into manageable units, is less daunting than the traditional degree structure. But warnings that were dismissed initially as outmoded conservativism, about the damaging impact on students' mastery of their subject, are now being taken more seriously.

The concerns about overexamining that have surrounded AS levels are equally valid on modular degree courses, where two sets of exams are the norm for an academic year. Add in the reading weeks scheduled before assessment and an already limited teaching calendar becomes dangerously constricted. The content of each module is reduced, as is the incentive for students to read widely around their subject.

Many critics have blamed the modular structure itself for destroying the integrity of a degree course. And there is justifiable criticism of the choice available in some programmes - the disparate array of modules that comprises the final degree may offer no coherent picture of the discipline studied. For Huddersfield and other universities rethinking their structure, however, the real problem is the semester. By making the academic year the basic unit of study, subjects can be explored in depth, and learning can again take priority over assessment. Bar Stirling, few UK universities divide the academic year in two: most persist with an uneasy mix of terms and semesters. Many students and academics would welcome a clean break as part of a wider look at the academic year.

The A-level debacle will give extra impetus to the movement for an undergraduate admissions system that uses results, not predictions. Semesters have been one of the obstacles to such a reform because of universities' desire to complete a full module before Christmas. Courses that run for a full year avoid such pressure. Universities will be reluctant to reorganise the academic year so soon after the last upheaval, but the arguments against semesters are stacking up.

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