Last week Curtin University held four “town hall” information sessions about the proposed changes to the academic calendar amid fears the University would adopt a trimester system.
But Provost. Professor John Cordery (who presented on behalf of the University at the sessions) said that although the University is considering a number of alternative models to the current academic calendar, “a trimester model has not, nor has it ever been, one of them” (Confused? Read on).
The initial proposal was for a voluntary term to be introduced over the summer break, making the calendar a 12-12-12 model—which would be implemented from 2020.
Because the third term would be voluntary, this isn’t defined as a trimester.
A trimester is defined as an academic year divided into three terms, in which courses are programmed across all three—this means that a student would be required to complete units in all three terms.
“If it doesn’t look like a trimester, and doesn’t operate as a trimester, then it isn’t a trimester,” Cordery said during the information session last Wednesday.
The University was opposed by the Curtin Student Guild who argued that the “summer term” would become compulsory (so, we’d have a trimester system), and that, regardless, changes to the academic calendar would negatively impact students on a number of fronts.
In response, the Guild quickly dubbed the proposal the “trimonster”, and began a colourful campaign in protest.
The town halls were attended by the Chair of the Academic Board, Professor Dale Pinto, and varying staff members of the Guild.
But lacking in number were those who will be affected most: students.
Despite the Guild’s online petition—which has amassed eight-thousand-some signatures—there were only a handful of students at each session.
12-12-12 versus 12-12-9
Cordery began by acknowledging the issues with the 12-12-12 model—limited time for processing and finalising results (and therefore for students to progress to the next study period), as well as insufficient breaks for students and staff within and between study periods (the loss of a tuition-free week and the study week before exams).
These reasons prompted the proposal of a 12-12-9 model.
Pinto said that the University’s 12-12-9 model was put forward by a member of the Academic Board, which prompted the Guild to propose an alternative 12-12-9 model (they differed in term start and finish dates, and study free weeks).
At the “town halls”, the 12-12-9 model discussed was a hybridised version the University adopted of their original 12-12-9 model and the Guild’s alternative.
A five-week break between study period one and two, and a minimum of two weeks between each study period are among the key features of the 12-12-9 proposal.
But some students (especially those opposed to any changes to the academic calendar) expressed disappointment that the Guild didn’t consult them about their alternative model.
Guild President Liam O’Neill said that there was communication with students via email—and through Facebook messages and comments—about their model, but admitted that it isn’t without fault:
“The Guild’s model is not perfect, but it is a dammed sight better than losing a study week before exams, a tuition free week each semester and watching the University creep in a compulsory trimester over years to come.”
He also stated that the Guild was motivated to offer an alternative to the 12-12-12 model because under this system it was possible for the University to introduce trimesters without consulting students:
“Removing the equal 12 week third period means that any change to [the academic calendar] will need to go back through a thorough process, and [the University] cannot simply flick the switch at a Head of School level, as they can under policy now and introduce [a] trimester [system] by stealth.”
Cordery listed the problems that the University is trying to resolve by implementing a change—including a lack of alignment across locations and programs, and the absence of a summer teaching period (simply: they want Bentley to mirror Curtin Singapore, Malaysia and Dubai).
They believe that in doing so they will improve cross-institutional mobility, which will increase international and postgraduate demand.
How about international students?
Cordery acknowledged the allegations brought against the University by the Guild, namely that that summer term would eventually become mandatory.
An international student raised this concern at Friday’s Town Hall:
“I am not eligible for HECS, so if [a trimester] is to be implemented it would be very difficult for me financially.”
When Cordery asked why, the student reminded him that international students are required to pay upfront, so a trimester model would mean paying tuition for three semesters at the start of the year.
Cordery said international students make up 30 per cent of Curtin’s enrolments, so the University would not want to implement changes that made it more difficult for them.
Cordery swore that “international students would not be disadvantaged,” and stressed that the University would not make the 12-12-12 model compulsory—despite fears of both the Guild and students.
He insisted that the University was only interested in providing students with more options, and that the proposal was not about financial gain:
“We won’t admit to this as a revenue decision, because it’s not.”
But will the University profit from the proposal?
Curtin’s salary staff are employed for the full year—though classes run for only two-thirds—and all of the Uni’s infrastructure sits there mostly untouched over that summer break (that we love so much).
You might be wondering if that’s costing the university (bear with us).
Students pay by course, not by the length of time they spend at university. So, if students were to study a few units over the summer break, they could potentially finish their degree earlier (simply: study more, finish earlier).
Students studying over that period would be using the aforementioned infrastructure, which means costs would be spread more evenly throughout the year (do you see where we’re going with this?).
Reduced costs. Higher student turnover. Increased tuition fee revenue (ka-ching).
But when a student posed this to the Provost, asking how students were supposed to believe that financial benefits were not a motive—especially taking into account the Governments funding cuts and freezes—the response was that the decision would not necessarily have a financial benefit.
“You’re right to say there are financial implications, but they’re not financial implications in terms of us gaining additional revenue. This could potentially have negative implications. A trimester model would be a challenge for the University.”
He reiterated that the University’s prime motivation was to be able to provide students with more flexibility.
“This model will benefit students who need to make up a unit in the summer period.”
Will an additional term make for additional stress for students and staff?
Another concern raised by students was the shortened exam period.
When asked how the University had managed to get two weeks of exams into one week, the Provost said that the exams run last year could have been compiled into a seven-day period. He believes this can be shortened even further to six days.
This only served to raise tensions.
“Compressing four exams into six days—when many are worth 50 per cent—is exponentially increasing the amount of stress on students. Students are already having four exams in two days in a two-week period. I don’t care how you say it can be rearranged. I don’t care if this is acceptable under University policy, it shouldn’t be,” one disgruntled engineering student said.
Teaching staff have also raised concerns, like how learning outcomes would be met in the 12-12-12 or 12-12-9 model.
Tony Snow, National Tertiary Education Union Curtin Branch President said academics and professional staff are unequivocally opposed to the 12-12-12 model proposed by the University.
“[The 12-12-12] model has many potential work issues for all staff across the University. The loss of two study weeks means that the academic work required for a unit is compressed into a smaller time span, so an intensification of work is the result. Just from a purely academic point of view lectures still need to be prepared, exams and assessments designed and written, assessments need to be marked and most importantly assessment feedback needs to be provided in a reasonable time frame to be of any value to a student. Then of course, there are issues for our professional staff members in terms of their workloads and timeframes associated with providing the essential services to both our students and academics.”
And, although the Guild’s alternative has not been clearly communicated to staff yet, that in his opinion “a 12-12-9 model provides no real benefit to anyone but entails some serious disadvantages to all.”
Snow’s concerns were echoed by students at the sessions who wanted to know whether the 12-12-12 and 12-12-9 models would reduce the quality of education they receive, but Cordery assured attendees that the content of courses would not be affected.
So, what now?
The decision on this matter will be made by the Academic Board—which approves relevant policies and procedures relating to academic matters. But the implementation of any proposal won’t occur until 2021 now.
The Board consists of 35 members—made up of a mixture of University staff, teaching staff, Guild executives, and students (though, only three; two of which are affiliated with the Guild).
Despite the campaign to prevent a 12-12-12 model, the Provost said that technically, it’s still an option.
When asked if there was a proposal to maintain the semester model, Cordery said this wasn’t necessary:
“If the Academic Board rejects the proposed [12-12-12 and 12-12-9] models, then the status-quo—[the semester model]—will remain.”
So, under consideration are the University’s 12-12-12 model, their 12-12-9 model, and the Guild’s 12-12-9 model.
Pinto said that the University is now considering the feedback it has received before putting forward a model for consideration by the Academic Services Committee (which will then go to the Academic Board for approval).
The Guild are currently negotiating for the reinstatement of the second tuition-free week in the second semester of the Uni’s 12-12-9 model (the key difference between their 12-12-9 model).
At this stage, the Provost said that a date for the vote has not been set, but that it will be October (at the earliest):
“We are still considering the feedback we received over the past two weeks, and further consultations will take place with stakeholders over the next month”.
At the end of each session Cordery reiterated that it is not the University’s intention to make decisions without the input of students.
But with only a handful of students attending each town hall, how can they be sure that the student body’s voice was heard?
It’s awfully hard to ask for the opinions of others, if you do not have an audience.
To all students, regardless of course, study method, or work load:
If you do not make yourself a part of the discussion, then decisions that affect you will be made without you.