Summer of discontent

August 18, 1995

A third semester would reduce choice and damage the quality of higher education, argues Ann Cotterrell.

Some institutions are to receive funds to cover the set-up costs of a teaching semester in the summer vacation as part of a pilot scheme for a third semester announced by the Higher Education Funding Council, which hopes more intensive use of premises can be made and that a third semester would increase student choice.

The bids for a third semester have been made by new universities and colleges of higher education. These institutions have lower levels of funding per student than the old universities and are most desperate for investment. Natfhe, the university and college lecturers' union, has had the chance to look at a number of institutional bids and, although different approaches were canvassed, our view is that a third semester would, ironically, reduce student choice and damage the quality of higher education.

The spreading of staff and students over three semesters would necessarily result in a loss of collegiality. The life of the academic community with the opportunity for the exchange of ideas and shared research would deteriorate. Student societies and similar activities are increasingly valued by employers for their role in the personal development of graduate recruits. These would suffer from lack of continuity as groups of students would be present at different times of the year. There would be no time of year when all lecturers were present to participate in decision-making.

Although a number of bids stressed that staff would not be required to work outside their contracts, they subsequently referred vaguely to the need for "flexibility" as far as course leaders and planners were concerned in order to ensure full-year continuity. Lecturers with administrative responsibilities would find themselves under increasing pressure to attend throughout the academic year, leaving no time for reflection, planning or scholarly activity.

The summer vacation currently provides time and access to libraries and computer facilities for research during a period when these are less intensively used. It also provides time for holidays. Child-care problems would be experienced by lecturers, administrative staff and students who were unable to take any of their leave or reduce the intensity of their work during the main school holiday.

Most telling was the scant attention paid in institutional bids to the educational coherence and benefits of the three-semester programmes, though simplistic claims abounded about expansion of student choice in the form of pick-and-mix options. The spreading of students across three semesters would reduce the viability of some modules and therefore reduce student choice. There could also be pressure to remove the "pre-requisites" or entry requirements for modules so that students at different stages could participate.

Three semesters would be most likely to be achieved by a reduction in the Christmas and Easter vacations. Teaching and learning in higher education are becoming increasingly stressful and these vacations are essential for staff and students to rest, recover and prepare for the next part of the course. A mid-semester pause for consolidation of learning and a gap between semesters for counselling students are also essential but these serve to reduce further the teaching weeks in each semester.

The quality of assessment procedures in higher education is already under threat as a result of increasing student numbers and the introduction of two semesters. The period allowed for marking, second marking and external examining is commonly regarded as inadequate. Any attempt to squeeze a third semester into the system will add to the pressure on examiners and threaten the quality of the assessment process.

Some of the bids aimed to condense a third semester into nine weeks or less. This type of proposal indicates the problems experienced in trying to fit a third semester into a year. It also shows the lack of academic credibility of a new system which would shortchange students.

At present a substantial amount of maintenance takes place during the summer vacation. Buildings are torn apart for rewiring, asbestos removal and general refurbishment. Libraries are tidied, stock is checked and vital cleaning takes place. With three semesters this work would either have to take place while students were present, or involve additional expenditure and disruption through 'decanting' of students or payment to contractors for working unsocial hours.

None of this is to deny that more intensive use could be made of some university buildings for part of the summer vacation. We have an ageing population and a growth in the number of one-person households. There are many people who would welcome holidays or study-breaks in high quality university accommodation. Some institutions have successfully tapped this market and are unlikely to bid for a third semester. There are also people from other European countries who are keen to improve their English by attending summer courses in the United Kingdom. It is unlikely that these 'customers' will be attracted in increasing numbers to shoddy, deteriorating lecture rooms or to sub-standard student accommodation.

Student numbers have outstripped government funding so that staff resources and many facilities are already over-stretched. The solution is not to use these facilities intensively for 50 weeks of the year. The solution must be to provide accommodation which institutions can be proud to hire out for conferences and courses when it is not required for student use. Such a policy would enhance the status of British education in the rest of Europe whereas the strategy of packing students in all year would serve only to diminish it.

In spite of the recent increase in capital funding and refurbishment which has taken place in some institutions, many university buildings are below acceptable standards. Funding for capital expenditure has failed to keep pace with the growth of student numbers. A large pump-priming investment to improve university premises would allow institutions to make more imaginative use of buildings in the vacations.

Ann Cotterrell is assistant secretary (higher education) for Natfhe, the university and college lecturers' union.

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