Autonomy and the Academic Year

A strength of any University system is the autonomy it gives to its constituent members to organise themselves differently. There are many features of the British system that manifest this, but a key area is the way that we organise our academic years. We do things differently, quite differently. Hopefully this isn’t lost on policy makers who aren’t as familiar with semesters as they are terms.

There was a time when there was much greater convergence in systems, but in the 1980s came the rise of modularisation and with it the rise of semesterisation, Before then, a university could demonstrate its modernity simply by adopting names for their terms not based on the liturgical calendar.

The academic year shall be divided into three terms and three vacations.
(1) The first, or Michaelmas, Term shall begin on and include 1 October and end on and include 17 December.
(2) The second, or Hilary, Term shall begin on and include 7 January and end on and include 25 March or the Saturday before Palm Sunday, whichever is the earlier.
(3) The third, or Trinity, Term shall begin on and include 20 April or the Wednesday after Easter, whichever is the later, and end on and include 6 July.

University of Oxford, Regulations on the Number and Length of Terms

A teaching model exclusively based on terms has now become a mixed model. I had a look at a selection of the patterns of English universities, chosen for their broad similarity (except for two added for effect). The first two ‘terms’ are broadly similar; bound as we are to Christmas and then to Easter.

It’s that third ‘term’ that differs. Here is the unwinding of the difference between semesters and terms. In most cases they are much shorter than the other periods and are dominated by assessments. Although labelled ‘exams’ on my chart, these are the final weeks of learning culminating in assessments. Here the art work is completed, the dress made, the model finished and the dissertation refined.

It was probably inevitable that, as higher education providers emerged, they followed the established pattern of the academic year, accentuated when both school exams and funding systems fully aligned to it. However, there was a curious phase in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the autonomous universities moved to adopt modularisation and also a semester structure. A group on modularisation at the University of Leeds surveyed 57 universities and members of federal universities in 1990 and found 33 of them already advanced in their plans to adopt modules*. This was radical stuff. Not everyone was convinced (and some still aren’t) that each module should have its own learning outcomes and those should be assessed within that module. Of course, the CNAA institutions were already well advanced with modularisation, but a new normal emerged in the sector.

The Leeds group considered models of semesters, noting the problem of the traditional vacations. They rejected the Stirling model (where the semester including exams was concluded before Christmas) settling for a short assessment period at the end of first semester after Christmas and a longer one after the second semester.

But, for a sector used to evolutionary change, the near universal move to modules, and the large number who moved to semesters, marked a clear change. When the sector came together in 1992 this framed a consistent way of working, hard-wired into the legacy of the Dearing Report (even if we haven’t kicked on to have a proper CATS system). The differences in academic year structure remains as a clear indicator of where autonomous universities took different decisions, particularly those who stayed with terms.

We’ve seen two recent examples of where there’s not enough consideration of these differences. First was the debate over admissions and now we have the response to Coronavirus. While the admissions conundrum affects the start of the year, where we have a fair degree of similarity, the ‘lockdown’ has hit the end of the year, and consideration of what that third ‘term’ consists of.

My sample of 2019/20 term dates shows the different challenges that universities face. Universities with fully semesterised programmes will have complete student profiles for up to 300 of the 360 credits of students’ work. Others will have less. Although potentially just a short-hand, DfE have referred to forthcoming assessments as ‘finals’ – not that helpful for students at level 4, 5 or 7 and supposing a exam model that is certainly no longer uniform. We need to remember that both teaching and assessment patterns will differ, a solution at university A will not fit university B.

And then, this is just the standard undergraduate pattern. Universities are trying to fit their solutions to January starting students, and year-long postgraduate students. Imagine also the issues for accelerated courses, surely the DfE hasn’t forgotten those?

* University of Leeds, Group on Modularisation of Courses (1991)

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