Summer semester trials

August 9, 1996

This summer just two institutions, the University of Luton and La Sainte Union College of Higher Education, are running summer semesters. What was once feared as the first step towards a radically extended academic year has passed with barely a whisper.

Liz Allen, higher education head at lecturer's union Natfhe, says that the small number of institutions piloting a summer semester has created a feeling that the issue has died a death. But she adds that it has not gone forever.

Ten institutions made bids to the Higher Education Funding Council for England to run the semesters as part of a pilot project following the 1993 Flowers committee report into the academic year.

A bid from Liverpool's John Moores University was withdrawn following staff opposition at the last minute, leaving the pilot without an institution enrolling full-time students for the summer.

Eleanor Bell, project director of the extended academic year programme at La Sainte Union, says plenty of its staff also opposed the trial because of the extra work it threatened to entail.

LSU is an independent college accredited to offer degree courses leading to University of Southampton awards. It is one of the few institutions with a full semester before Christmas and a longer mid-year break. This academic year the second semester ran from January to early May and the summer semester will run from May to September.

Ms Bell says academics' participation in the trial has been voluntary and they are being paid more for the extra work. "We not setting a precedent - we are deliberately not saying this is part of your job," she says. The HEFCE's Pounds 300,000 grant for the project is being used to to help foot the bill.

The trial will help the college to serve its part-time students better, Ms Bell argues. The extra term will allow students to spread their workload over the year, reduce the time needed to do a course and begin in May rather than waiting until the autumn. The local community will also benefit, as the funding allows the library to open for longer than normal during the summer.

LSU enrolled 55 students in six undergraduate arts, humanities and science courses and 65 in three intensive professional programmes.

Feedback from students and staff will be gathered. Consultants Segal Quince Wicksteed will evaluate the pilot as it proceeds at both LSU and Luton. And a joint working group with members from the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, the Department for Education and Employment and other groups is closely monitoring progress.

Ms Bell does not believe that the trial will lead to a third semester being introduced across the sector. "The logistics of operating three semesters for full-time students would be quite different and more problematic," she says.

At the University of Luton, part-time law students are "wildly enthusiastic" about the summer term, says project director Joanna Heath, because it cuts the duration of the degree from six years to four.

The university also hopes the trial will allow it to learn more about how employers would like part-time courses to be offered.

As well as boosting part-time student numbers, nearly 300 have enrolled for the pilot, Luton wants to use facilities such as computer rooms and the library all year, in line with the Flowers report.

But if the pilot is successful and a summer semester is introduced, the Flowers-recommended increase in funding of just 4 per cent means some academics would face significant change. Ms Heath explains it as a case of perhaps offering the winter rather than the summer off, but whether staff would be free to make these sorts of decisions themselves is questionable.

For these reasons, the Association of University Teachers and Natfhe are watching developments closely.

Ms Allen says the unions' joint response to the Flowers Committee recommendations was "pretty negative", largely because they believed no significant extra cash would be provided to pay for a third semester.

Ms Allen says the unions believe a summer semester would lead to a two-tier system, in which some academics were primarily teaching staff with less and less time for research and other scholarly activity.

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