Universities tear up academic calendars to offer flexible study

Changing term dates leaves staff fearing extra workload pressures and encroachments on research time and summer breaks

April 11, 2024
Sunbathers watch Italian re-enactors dressed as Greek hoplites perform the 490 BC battle of Marathon
Source: Louisa GouliamakiAFP/Getty Images

Policy and funding challenges, alongside shifting student expectations, are prompting universities to attempt radical restructures of the academic year, but some early adopters of new models are already U-turning after staff complained of higher workloads.

The University of Essex recently attracted ire for its proposed “new academic framework”, which would replace three 10-week terms with three 15-week semesters, theoretically extending annual teaching time to 45 weeks.

Leaders at the institution were quick to justify the proposal as a way of formalising the period over the summer already widely used primarily for postgraduate thesis writing and said it would result in no extra teaching load for most staff.

But academics at Essex and elsewhere remain concerned about encroachments on their research time and summer breaks, especially as universities pivot to offer more flexible study.

Oxford Brookes University is also looking at changing its academic year and last month opened a poll for staff and students to consult them on several options, including adding a mid-semester break known as an “enrichment week” or recognising a third semester over the summer.

The University of Bristol will switch to a new format this autumn, bringing its start date for undergraduate courses forward in September to ensure the assessment period takes place before the winter break, in response to students saying they were having to spend Christmas revising.

Larra Anderson, pro vice-chancellor (education) at Essex, said its proposals were driven by a desire to simplify the system and prepare for England’s coming lifelong loan entitlement (LLE), which will allow students to take singular modules and build up degree awards over time.

She said the existing system at Essex was “uneven” and the new model would allow the university to offer two 30-credit modules each semester.

While there were no current plans to introduce flexible start dates for undergraduates or condensed degree programmes, Professor Anderson said, she added that part of the aim of the exercise was to “futureproof” the university’s timetable and, if there was student demand for it, the new schedule could facilitate such initiatives in future – but that would be accompanied by an increase in staff numbers.

Jordan Osserman, co-chair of Essex’s University and College Union (UCU) branch, said the scale of the proposals had taken the staff “completely by surprise”.

“Essex has prided itself on being a research-intensive university, but in order to succeed in that…we need investment in research, and we need time,” he said.

“If that time gets eaten up by massive administrative changes and overhauls to how the university works, and potentially a massive increase in teaching, where are staff going to find the time to do the research that gives the university the reputation we’d like it to have?”

Professor Anderson said that one of the aims of the proposed new academic year was to reduce pressure on staff workloads and create new windows for research, with academics who needed condensed periods off to work on their scholarship potentially able to teach for only half the 15-week semester.

“Simplification has exponential benefits in terms of workloads, students’ understanding of their journey, timetabling; we’re hoping over the next few years to create space for people with other commitments, be it staff with research or students who work or commute or have caring responsibilities,” she said.

“That is a movement a lot of universities are looking at right now; going away from having to come in five days a week for an hour-long lecture to a more condensed timetable. These are the kinds of simplifications we are hoping this framework will achieve.”

In Australia, UNSW Sydney moved to a trimester system – known as UNSW +3 – in 2019, but this already looks set to be overhauled after an internal review concluded it wasn’t working.

The system – which stretched the academic year to three 10-week substantive terms and a shorter summer term – was introduced to allow some students to graduate earlier and reduce scheduled classes and exam density.

Instead, the shorter summer holiday had reduced students’ time in which they were available for paid work, had proved problematic for international students and put the university out-of-kilter with other institutions, said Richard Vickery, president of the UNSW branch of the National Tertiary Education Union.

He said the switch had also increased workloads “markedly”, especially for administrative staff, because there were more admission, timetabling and exam periods.

The transition had involved “enormous energy”, said Dr Vickery, due to the need to re-sequence courses, reimagine assessment tasks and rework content. It was yet not known what would replace UNSW +3 but a lack of teaching space meant “turning the clock back is not possible” and the fear was that all this energy “would need to be spent again”.

A UNSW spokesperson said the review of its academic calendar would continue for the next two years, with any changes likely to take effect from 2027 to allow for “ongoing consultation with the UNSW community”.


Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Related universities

Reader's comments (1)

So, students have to revise for a few years at Christmas. Not really a reason to change the academic year. I remember just having Christmas day off in my second year and taking my notes to my grandparents' house. It is only for a few years and the reward lasts a lifetime. The world outside universities does not change to suit you but rather the other way round, so students should get used to that!