Longer summer holidays or breaks during the year? These are your ideas for the academic year

The Dutch academic year is the longest in the EU. Last week, UKrant asked its readers what a shorter academic year should look like. What follows is a compilation of the responses we received.

When he was doing a master in Euroculture, Bart Swinkels had a longer summer vacation, and at the University College Groningen (UCG), he had a few extra weeks off during the year. As an ‘expert’ he knows which option he would pick: more weeks off during the year, like at the UCG.

‘It was simply fantastic’, Swinkels writes, ‘because there was a clear distinction between when we were supposed to work and when we were off, and it was great to genuinely have a week off without thinking about assignments and spend it on a holiday, visiting family, or just taking time off.’

His master Euroculture did it differently, though. The master started in October and ended in May, giving him more time off in the summer. ‘Having nothing to do for that long is amazing, obviously, but it also made me lazy. That made it hard to get back into the rhythm of doing things, and even harder to focus on studying.’

Study rhythm

In agreement with Swinkels is molecular life sciences student Maxim Schalkwijk: he doesn’t feel extra-long summer holidays would be a solution. That long a period will throw off students’ study rhythm and will make it harder for them to return to class in September or October. 

Schalkwijk thinks a week of peace and quiet elsewhere in the year, especially May, would be a better idea. ‘Around this time, I usually had more trouble finishing my last courses. A fall break would also be a great addition.’

International biology student Leo Widodo also wonders if longer summer holidays are the solution, although it would help him visit his family abroad for longer. But he doesn’t think the advantages outweigh the drawbacks. ‘The Dutch alternative, having fall and spring breaks, may be a more ideal solution.’

Christmas break

But, says student Anouk, some things would need to change. More time off during a spring or fall break would be pointless if they’re immediately followed by exams. ‘I often end up studying for my exams for block 2 during the Christmas break. A better alternative would be to have a week off after exams, so we can truly rest up and don’t have to think about deadlines or exams.’

Student Ruben Wagenvoort, who represents student party SOG on the university council, agrees. ‘The only break is the two-week Christmas holiday, where you usually have to study due to the exams straight after the holiday. Students don’t get a chance to recharge their batteries; they’re running from block to block, cramming all this information into their heads just to pass exams.’

Associate professor of arts Kristin McGee has a solution to this issue. She’s lobbied for years for the removal of resits for second and third-year students and resits for the first semester only in the first year.  Resits have been proven to lead to procrastination and don’t necessarily lead to better results in terms of success rates. If we were to cut one week between blocks, we could shorten the academic year by one month.’

Long internship

Conversely, PhD candidate Jethro would love longer summer holidays; that was how it was in Hong Kong, where he used to study. Longer summer holidays allow students to do a full-time internship, he says. ‘These internships usually lasted for around three to four months, which is quite different from a part-time job and a great opportunity to get to know the “real world”.’

Another advantage, according to Jethro, is that internationals will have more time to spend with their family.

That international perspective is important, says Dirk-Jan Scheffers, programme director of life sciences and technology at the Faculty of Science and Engineering. When colleagues abroad have long finished and started the conference season, which is important ‘to keep abreast of our field and to share our work with our colleagues’, he’s still teaching classes or marking tests. 

Scheffers is all for starting later and finishing earlier. He also thinks extending the Christmas break by a week would be a good idea. ‘Our international staff and students often have to rush home on December 23 or 24 when flights (and other travel options) are most expensive and busy.  A three-week Christmas break gives everyone time to visit family and friends in a more relaxed fashion, something spring- or autumn breaks do not achieve.’

Course load

There’s one thing almost everyone agrees on: the issue of stress, whether it’s on students, researchers, or lecturers, isn’t solved by extra breaks if everyone’s course load remains the same. After all, that would mean that people would have less time to do the exact same work, which wouldn’t benefit anyone.

Student Hristo Boyadzhiev says that Dutch universities are the most intense educational institutes. ‘This doesn’t lead to quality, it leads to additional stress, less time, and a painful choice between social and academic life’, he says. ‘Holidays rarely feel like an actual break, more often entailing a further attempt to catch up to some resits, or to plan for another school year.’

Intense block education

In order to benefit from a shorter academic year, we should consider a ‘rigorously different way of organising education’, says Laurent Krook, psychology lecturer and coordinator of eLearning at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences.

One option Krook offers is intense block education, during which students only take one or two classes during a three or four-week period, followed by immediate testing. While it makes for a more intense curriculum, it would also free up time, he says. 

But this model, he adds, can only work with ‘genuine investments in education, not just fixes’. Krook: ‘Investments not just in terms of money, but also in terms of facility, awareness, expertise, time, and especially people.’

Ruben Wagenvoort also points out that the educational system at Dutch universities should be restructured, perhaps taking Great Britain as an example; universities there have two exam periods rather than four, which means each period lasts longer. ‘This removes the need for staff and students to cram knowledge into the seven-week block and allow a break between examinations and the start of the new semester.’

ROB SIEBELINK

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