Remember, remember November

November 4, 1994

The current debate about the university year, provoked by the move towards modular courses and semester-based teaching, has focused on an early September start. But why is nobody taking seriously the option of starting in November?

Last year's report from the Flowers committee summarily rejected a November start in one paragraph. Despite acknowledging the benefits of post A-level admissions they were reluctant to "force unwilling institutions to start in November". What about those unwilling to start early in September? A mid-semester break would "interrupt the learning process". On the contrary, it could consolidate it. A November start would "reduce further the harmonisation of the school and academic years". Why should they be harmonised? The only valid objection is that a November start would "reduce opportunities for international student exchange"; even here it only seriously disturbs those who come to us just for the first semester.

In the absence of general agreement, universities that have introduced semesters, including the University of East Anglia, have superimposed their dates onto a conventional three-term pattern. The academic year starts in late September with about 12 weeks' teaching before Christmas; the semester continues for two or three weeks in January with revision and examinations; the second semester, interrupted by the Easter break, finishes in late June.

Criticism of this pattern has focused on the "broken back" of the first semester. Hence the idea of an early September start, with a full 15 weeks before Christmas.

At UEA we have just completed our first two-semester year. Our experience of a continuous 12-week block of teaching surprised us: the sense of pressure and exhaustion felt by staff and students was far greater than expected. Fifteen weeks would be much worse: we would certainly need a mid-semester break, but that would erode teaching time or extend the academic year.

Even if we learn to live with the 15-week block, an early September start merely defers the problems. With Easter variable, no pattern can be consistently satisfactory, but starting the second semester immediately after the Christmas break is particularly awkward. Moreover, Easter could be merely an extended weekend: that would do little to alleviate the weariness of a second 15-week block and, for many disciplines, would disrupt the annual cycle of research conferences. A two to four-week break around Easter would in most years break the back of the second semester even more disastrously than a 12/3 split of the first, judging by experience at UEA. We have taught science courses in a pseudo-semester fashion for many years -- eight weeks before Easter and four after. There is already great pressure from students to erode the final four weeks as they prepare for exams and it would be even more difficult with a shorter period. An extended Christmas/New Year vacation, to let Easter form a convenient mid-semester break, is not an attractive option.

Most suggestions for an early September start assume that the A-level examination period and the admissions process can be condensed. How arrogant to assume that secondary schools must jump to our command! It has been suggested that admissions could be streamlined by increased use of IT, but heavy reliance on computer placement must conflict with students' needs to be considered as individuals at this difficult time.

The traditional admissions process could continue if we had a staggered start, first-year undergraduates arriving three weeks after continuing students. But this creates as many problems as it solves. In modular programmes second-year students often take modules in common with first-years. Universities that guarantee accommodation to freshers would face impossible logistics. And for new students, the insecurity of early weeks would be exacerbated by arrival into a fully-operational institution.

One idea put forward is to defer selection to January. Post A-level admissions would be good, not least for schools currently disrupted by admissions visits. But it would also mean an uncomfortably long gap between school and university, and the difficulties of a January-April semester remain. Moreover, either the teaching year is disrupted by an extended summer break or the research period is transferred from the summer, thereby disrupting British academics' access to the international conference season.

An early November start offers all the benefits of post A-level admissions and uniformity for all years of students. The first 12 weeks' teaching could be neatly bisected by Christmas, with a similar break in the second semester and the impact of Easter's variability would be less. There is minimal disruption of the summer research period.

So, before we are led inexorably to an early September start, let us have some real debate about alternatives.

Richard Jones is pro vice chancellor of the University of East Anglia.

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