There’s a lot of rumours and not a lot of information going around; so, is Curtin really introducing trimesters from 2020?
Well, not quite.
At the moment, Curtin looks set to introduce a third study period into the 2020 academic calendar. But that doesn’t make it a trimester, since it won’t be compulsory for all students.
Deputy Vice Chancellor Academic, Professor Jill Downie, who is leading the push for the proposal, said the changes are focused on making things better for students.
“It really is about flexibility for students,” she said.
“There are a considerable amount of students who want to fast-track, and there are a considerable amount who would like an extended period over the summer for paid work.
“When we talked to students, they said the most attractive thing about Curtin was the flexibility and opportunities, so it’s an extension of that.”
Curtin Student Guild President, Liam O’Neill, said despite what the University says, the proposal is for a trimester system.
“A trimester is an academic year divided into three periods. That is what Curtin is proposing,” he said.
“The University says the summer trimester will be optional when it is first introduced, but I believe it will only be a matter of time before it is compulsory.”
National Tertiary Education Union Curtin branch president Tony Snow said offering three study periods every year could mean courses run when they aren’t viable.
“If you follow this road, sooner or later you might get to the stage where you say, ‘well, sorry, but it’s going to have to be three continuous semesters and that’s the study pattern for everybody,’” he said.
Mr O’Neill said no matter what form the changes take, they’ll only end up hurting students.
“This model undermines the standard of our education, lowering the quality of our degrees and damaging graduate outcomes,” he said.
“As a particular student raised with me, ‘why should I, who has to work part-time and suffers from severe anxiety, have to give up two weeks out of my semester that I need so some Scotch College boy can fast-track his finance degree to go work with his dad in the big banks?’”
On the topic of mental health, Mr O’Neill said the consequences of the changes could be “disastrous”.
“With Universities Australia research indicating that two-thirds of students are living below the poverty line, and headspace research indicating huge rates of mental health issues among students, all that losing study weeks and tuition free weeks does is make this much worse,” he said.
“Due to increased workload requirements on students under a trimester system, we believe that Curtin’s already under-resourced mental health and support services will be unable to meet the demands of students.”
Professor Downie, whose portfolio includes student support services, said she believed the changes would have the opposite effect.
“We don’t think flexibility and choice is something that will increase mental health issues,” she said.
“We’ll continue to monitor it closely, but we don’t envision it affecting students more.”
The long road to change
The current debate over the academic calendar began in 2016, when a working party began considering changes to Curtin’s academic calendar at the request of the Academic Board.
At the conclusion of that process in September 2017, the Academic Board accepted the party’s recommendation that the current calendar be maintained.
Guild breathed a sigh of relief, having avoided the possibility of losing a tuition free week under one of the suggested proposals.
But, less than a year after the Academic Board’s decision, the University approached the Guild to discuss its intention to introduce a third study period over summer—available to all students.
Mr O’Neill said Curtin’s backflip sets a dangerous precedent moving forward.
“This is disappointing in the extreme,” he said.
“How can the University now expect anyone to engage in a consultative process if we know that they will never honour it?
“While the University claims it will be optional, it will be very easy to change this down the track, and I think we all know better than to believe what Curtin says,” he said.
Mr Snow said the University’s academic staff were just as upset as students.
“I think this is really what has angered most of our staff at the University, [it’s] that we went through this procedure last year, exhaustively,” he said.
“I think most staff would be pretty disappointed with the outcome, and in some respects you might say it’s typical of management that don’t listen to their staff, and decided they know better, and they’re quite prepared to push through a change that’s not going to be supported.”
Mr Snow said the proposal is a new one, with a trimester-free academic calendar already set last year.
“In November, we actually sat down with UAB and they came back with a revised 2020 calendar, which included six week intensive periods,” he said.
Professor Downie said the Academic Board’s decision had been made under different circumstances, before Curtin’s Mauritius and Dubai campuses had been opened.
“Things have changed, as you would expect in an agile and flexible university,” she said.
“The proposed changes are also designed to establish a common calendar across campuses in WA, Singapore, Mauritius and Malaysia.
“This is designed to provide students with greater access to valuable study abroad opportunities.”
Mr O’Neill rejected that suggestion, and said it was a weak justification by Curtin.
“I think that this is a vastly overstated benefit that does not stack up,” he said.
“This change only moves Bentley, Kalgoorlie, Malaysia and Mauritius in line with Curtin Singapore and the City [Business and Law campuses].
“Curtin should focus on promoting the value of student mobility, rather than use it as an excuse to introduce trimesters.”
According to a calendar published by Guild, students’ summer breaks could be up to five weeks longer under the proposed changes.
Professor Downie said this would give students the chance to better position themselves to enter the workforce.
“For those students not wishing to study across the summer period, the proposed changes will provide enhanced opportunities to engage in paid work, placements or volunteer work,” she said.
But Mr O’Neill said the changes will result in the complete opposite.
“The issue is that students will have to fit in the same amount of study, placements and other commitments within a much more rigid timeframe,” he said.
“Flexibility will be reduced and those who work part-time throughout the year will be at a disadvantage.
“If the trimester model becomes compulsory, and I believe it is only a matter of time before this occurs, these issues will become even more pronounced.
“Employers have consistently pointed to the need for students to do more than just study for their degree at University.
“Extracurricular activities such as volunteering, involvement in clubs, part-time work and completing internships are valued highly. Trimesters mean less time to do any of these things.”
What do students think?
Journalism and Law student Eliza Lyon said the changes would hit students who aren’t originally from Perth hard.
“I think trimesters could be quite detrimental to Curtin,” she said.
“The fact it will cut down the Christmas break will only frustrate students who either go away in the break or use the time with family and friends.
“[For me], it means I wouldn’t be able to travel to Bunbury as often, as the breaks wouldn’t be as long, and the heavier study load would make time away much more difficult.”
For other students, like International Relations and Economics student Luke Jakovcevic, it’s the lack of clear information that worries him the most.
“The main thing I’m worried about is that they haven’t released much of their plans, just that they’re planning on introducing three study periods,” he said.
“They haven’t told us how it’s really going to impact us, so we’re all just guessing at the moment.
“I fear we won’t have a choice for the three study periods in the end, and that other universities will follow what Curtin is going to do.”
Staff oppose the change too?
Mr Snow said staff are worried the changes will make it even more difficult to give students the support they need.
“I think most academic staff would say from a pedagogical point of view, it’s not good practice,” he said.
“From a point of view of being prepared for the lectures and keeping up the workload, including the marking, feedback to students, all those sorts of things, it’s just simply making that a lot more difficult.
“Some of the assignment work is going to be due on the last week of classes. You’ve then got to try and get it turned around.”
Curtin Law School Lecturer, Dr Hugh Finn, said the proposal would mean a huge workload for students and staff who are part of courses already delivered in trimesters.
“The implications of the proposed academic calendar change are significant for Curtin Law School students because the teaching model for the LLB degree is based on a trimester system for the second- and third-year units,” he said.
“If the existing trimester system for the law degree were simply to convert to the proposed three study period calendar, then law students would be in class or taking exams for 42 weeks a year.
“In other words, the teaching and exam periods for law students would encompass eight out of 10 weeks in the year.”
However, Dr Finn could also see some upsides to the proposed changes.
“The main benefit [for law students] is that each study period would have 12 teaching weeks, rather than the 10 teaching weeks in the current trimester calendar,” he said.
No study week the biggest loss?
Many students have pointed to the removal of the study week before exams as the worst part of the changes, including Business Information Systems student, Tom Brewster.
“That week gives you a mental break and allows you to get all of your notes and thoughts together,” he said.
“There are some really talented people that would be able to work under these conditions, but taking away the week before exams is crucial.”
That sentiment was echoed by Mr Snow, who said the final weeks of each study period would only become more stressful.
“How are they going to be able to turn that around and actually get it back to students so the student can actually get feedback, can understand why he may have done poorly in that or maybe done well in it, and prepare for an exam at the same time?” he said.
Mr Snow also said he could see students doing poorly in exams because of the rushed nature of the proposed system.
“If you’ve got exams in that first week and you’re still having examinable material in the last week of classes, it does make it very difficult because that turn-around where you’re trying to develop the understanding of the work, trying to get to a point where you actually remember it and understand it, takes a bit of time and it’s just not available,” he said.
Professor Downie said while no decisions had been made yet, the University was working on ways to “streamline” the examination process, including overhauling the Board of Examiners system, and holding exams at outside venues.
Professor Downie said students still have time to make their voices heard.
“At the request of the Curtin Student Guild, the University has agreed to extend the consultation period to provide more opportunities for students to engage with the proposal and provide feedback,” she said.
Mr O’Neill said the Guild is currently planning their next steps and encouraged students who are against the proposed changes to sign their petition.
In a statement released on June 18, Professor Downie said the University is happy to meet with students, and will release information about a consultation process shortly.
Professor Downie’s office can be contacted here.