OPINION: While Julius Caesar is widely recognised as a conquering general, perhaps his greatest reform was revising the calendar. His changes were profoundly beneficial but at the time it was a very big step that affected everyone.
Two thousand years later many universities are moving to reform their academic calendars to provide more opportunities for students and to make better use of their campuses across the year. University of NSW is pioneering a new approach, the UNSW3+ calendar. This comprises three terms of 10 weeks and an optional five-week summer term. From 2019 this will replace our two 12-week semesters.
Across the world higher education is becoming increasingly competitive and by using our campus more we will improve UNSW and be able to stay ahead. But it is the advantages for students studying in the modern world that really is driving us.
Gone are the days when students had to return home for the harvest, and today there are concerns that in academic terms the long summer breaks are not so much a time for consolidation as an opportunity for forgetting.
Most important, rather than raising funds by bringing in the grapes over summer, many students work part time across the year. The UNSW3+ model is designed to help these students work while maintaining their studies. Part-time work will be facilitated as we spread the load and reduce the number of subjects students need to take each term.
At present students take four subjects a semester; in UNSW3+ they will take up to three. Students also could take just two subjects a term and retain full-time student status.
The reduction in the number of subjects in each teaching term is a key feature of the model. We’ve noticed that stress levels are increasing. Taking fewer subjects concurrently will reduce the number of assessments or assignments that students will face in each teaching period.
The important thing is that the number of subjects a term reduces and the flexibility increases but the teaching load per year, contact hours, a normal full-time load of eight subjects a year are all entirely unchanged — the quality and quantity of teaching is intact but the work is just spread out more, relieving stress and reducing pressures on our classrooms and laboratories and making better use of our campus.
I do not believe in highly accelerated learning but allowing students to speed up a three-year degree by one term will be attractive to many.
For some it will mean freeing up time to work, do internships, research or to go overseas. Extra-curricular and international activities increasingly are important and the alignment of our new term three with northern hemisphere calendars will facilitate global exchanges across the modern world.
And for others, finishing a term early will save money. As we have consistently indicated, Centrelink payments will not be affected provided students do what they do now: enrol in each teaching period and complete 75 per cent of a fulltime load or six out of eight subjects in a year.
In the past many staff have been employed on casual or sessional contracts because it didn’t make sense to provide continuing contracts to staff who taught only 24 weeks of a 52-week year. With UNSW3+ offering up to 35 teaching weeks we are aiming to offer new employment opportunities to staff who choose to dedicate themselves to teaching.
But we do realise we are shaking things up; it’s like Sunday shopping or football games midweek. Part of me would like to stay in the old days, reading Julius Caesar’s stories of the Gallic Wars, and leaving the outside world to its mad rush. But another part of me recognises that there are Julius Caesars in other countries too and I want to ensure that my university remains at the forefront of excellence and productivity.
Merlin Crossley is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education) at UNSW.
This opinion piece was first published in The Australian.