Twelve week semester defeated, but trimesters on the march

University of Sydney Post Graduate Representative Assocation members protesting on March 28.
Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Students and staff are celebrating the defeat of Sydney University’s attempt to cut semesters from 13 weeks to 12. After almost no consultation with students or staff, the university attempted to push through the move at the Academic Board meeting on March 28.

Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association (SUPRA) protested against the proposal and called on the board to vote "No". Overwhelmingly academic staff took this advice, with only management voting for the change.

Sydney University’s manoeuvre follows a trend of “trimesterisation” of higher education institutions. University of Technology Sydney, Deakin and Bond universities have all implemented trimesters (three terms) and last year University of New South Wales (UNSW) announced plans to introduce a trimester academic year in 2019.

This initiative, which is being referred to as UNSW3+, will cost the university $3 billion. UNSW is implementing the “Stanford model”, which allows for 10 weeks of learning and assessment time per trimester, with two-week breaks between trimesters, an optional five week summer school at the end of the year and then a four-week summer break.

The study load for this new academic calendar remains the same, with a minimum of six subjects per year for a full-time student. This means students will have the same course work, the same assessments and the same work load, but a shorter amount of time to do them.

So why introduce these changes?

The changes are primarily to tie in with academic calendars in the northern hemisphere, so international students can more easily study in Australia in Study Abroad programs.

UNSW is advertising its new trimester-based calendar as an “exciting and progressive change”. Its main marketing point is that international students will not have to spend as much time in Australia as previously to complete a degree. They can come to Australia, give UNSW their money and leave as soon as possible — albeit with a lower quality education.

While Study Abroad programs can offer unique learning opportunities to the privileged students who partake in them, the argument that the whole nature of higher education needs to be changed to accommodate international study programs is highly questionable.

Implementing these changes would lead to increased strain on the physical and mental wellbeing of students and staff, especially disabled, single-parent and low income students and staff, as the consequences of missing even one class skyrockets.

SUPRA co-president, Ahmed Suhaib said: “We support the university’s initiative to encourage more students to be part of Study Abroad programs and other learning opportunities, but reducing semester time is not the way to do it.

“Trimester-based campuses and 12-week semester proposals will be detrimental to already disadvantaged students, in hopes of providing a more exciting university experience for the small percentage of students who can afford to study overseas, while lowering education quality for all students at Australian campuses.”

Schools with trimester academic calendars, place less importance on face-to-face learning and discussion, and more importance on mechanical and online learning. UNSW, for example, has allocated $75 million of their $3 billion budget for this initiative — exclusively towards online learning and teaching platforms.

This lower-quality education is the trade-off for the fact that UNSW can now streamline its graduates directly into the workforce, less equipped, less educated and less aware, but still holding the same qualifications. This is corporate greed removing human growth and learning from the education system.

UNSW3+ and the USYD semester cuts create uncertainty for professional staff at these universities, who are now being replaced with online methods and “self-learning”.

This is just the latest way UNSW is undermining its staff, after the leak of its plan for 2025, which proposes job cuts over two years of about 415 fulltime staff. Sydney University casual staff are paid piece rates and one fewer week a semester would see them suffer financially. Many casual staff live under the poverty line.

The reaction to the announcement of UNSW3+ has been widespread dissent from students and staff. Students called a rally on the UNSW library lawn on March 8 that drew 800 people. Sydney University’s 12-week semester proposal met stiff resistance at the Academic Board meeting and was voted down. According to a Honi Soit article, Sydney University’s pro-corporate Vice Chancellor “Michael Spence indicated that should feedback from students and staff improve, the proposal may be reintroduced”.

Sydney University staff and students staved off another anti-education measure from management and stood up for quality education and the rights of casual workers. Despite this step forward, students and university staff need to be ever vigilant against the corporate agenda that permeates universities today. 

[Rachel Evans is the SUPRA co-education officer and co-organiser of Socialist Alliance Sydney branch.] 

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