First-year summertime, time to research, not to unwind

Exeter looks to add value for £9K 'customers', but council members are sceptical. John Morgan writes

September 8, 2011

A university is to launch a summer programme in a bid to give students more bang for their trebled buck - but whether it means more work for academics remains to be seen.

The University of Exeter wants to introduce a compulsory programme for first-year students in the final two weeks of the summer term, with the aim of offering better value when it increases annual undergraduate tuition fees to £9,000 in 2012-13.

"The research-led summer programme would be academically rigorous and therefore would add value if it was delivered well," minutes from an Exeter council meeting state.

Exeter is ninth on the list of universities with the highest proportions of AAB students, making it part of a new elite under the move to ease controls on institutional numbers from 2012.

A university spokeswoman said that the summer programme would focus on "broadening students' horizons on key global challenges informed by leading research" and "enhancing employability". She said that at present, "formal teaching is concentrated in the first two terms via two intensive, continuous blocks", with revision, assessment and extracurricular activities in the third term.

The plans - to be piloted next summer - come "partly in response to the challenges presented by the new fee regime", the spokeswoman said.

But some Exeter council members appear sceptical about the "research-led" programme, apparently arguing that more teaching should be introduced instead.

"It was suggested that it would be difficult to convince parents that no teaching after March was good value for money and the evidence for the demand for the summer programme was not convincing," the minutes state.

"Reassurance about how the customer would respond to this proposal was requested as, without very clever communication, customers would come to the crude conclusion that there would be no academic teaching in the third term."

The minutes add: "It was proposed that to increase academic rigour and value for money, there should be teaching in the summer term for first years and second years and council should be provided with more information about the spread and quality of teaching hours and whether academics had enough time to deliver what was proposed."

Exeter's spokeswoman said the programme was "still in the design stage and will be subject to further consultation within the university".

She added: "We don't expect it to involve a large number of academics. Any teaching commitments will be factored into staff workloads."

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said that while students "are likely to become more demanding as the price of tuition trebles ... the answer is not simply to try to squeeze more out of already overstretched staff".

"If a university wants to offer additional teaching it needs to recruit additional staff on proper terms and conditions," Ms Hunt said.

john.morgan@tsleducation.com.

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