A smarter academic year
Let’s cut some resits
From the moment the university’s doors open in September, the clock starts counting down to June. By the end of November, exams will already have been taken and marked, Christmas will come and go, only to see more exams sat and marked again in January, March, and finally June.
Thousands of exams will be sat. Some will be failed, plenty resat. Staff will pore over reams of assignments, devote less time to research, and have little more to show for it than their colleagues overseas.
In the Netherlands, this lengthy academic year is the norm for some students and staff. ‘We just keep going and we keep going and we keep going’, says Bettina Reitz-Joosse, associate professor of Latin language and literature, succinctly.
But is that really such a bad thing? Perhaps a bit of pressure breeds success – after all, diamonds are formed under pressure.
Reitz-Joosse and associate professor Han Thomas Adriaenssen of the UG’s Faculty of Philosophy certainly think something has to give. They are both members of the Dutch Young Academy Groningen (YAG) and two of the authors of the Academy’s recent report titled ‘A Smarter Academic Year’.
The report calls for a rethink of the length and capacity of the current academic year, citing jaded staff and students, less time for research and few teaching free periods as reasons for the change.
‘Did we feel that this was a thing? Or, is it really a thing?’ Before writing the report, Reitz-Joosse recalls her and her colleagues asking about the length of the academic year. The report suggests emphatically that it really is long.
Work pressure can be less if we start a conversation about the length of the academic year
Han Thomas Adriaenssen
‘We observed that there is a real problem with work pressure among Dutch universities’, says Adriaenssen. Although the report does not research work pressure directly, it cites that ‘no fewer than 72 percent of academic staff at Dutch universities feel that the work pressure is heavy to very heavy.’ Conversations about the length of the academic year and the associated pressure could help to reduce this figure the report suggests.
Why is the academic year so long? Early start dates and later end dates paired with plenty of assessment periods all add to the equation. However, a recent sample of several European universities included in the report (Gent, Chalmers, Sorbonne, Bologna, Humboldt, and St. Andrews) suggests it needn’t be this way.
The Dutch academic year ranks the longest of those in the sample, with a total of thirty teaching weeks on average and the fewest breaks to boot. ‘Our colleagues abroad devote two months less time to teaching’, points out Reitz-Joosse. This is done while achieving comparable results, which means that ‘the quality of a university doesn’t dictate the number of weeks in the calendar,’ she says.
The calendar is in part made full by assessment periods that foreign universities happily omit. Tina Kretschmer, professor in pedagogical and educational sciences and chair of the YAG, compares this to her experience overseas. ‘When I arrived in the Netherlands, I was particularly surprised at the number of resit periods. In the UK, where I was previously, resits are taken at the end of the year.’
In the UK resits are taken at the end of the year
Chair of the Young Academy Gronigen
The report reflects this too; the Dutch academic year sees some nine weeks of assessment across the year, and in Groningen students can resit at the end of each block. Accordingly, Dutch students and staff sit and mark four weeks more worth of exams each than their peers abroad.
Five weeks of research
The impact of extensive assessment periods becomes a burden on research time, too. Adriaenssen echoes the crux of the findings for researchers. ‘Different tasks are competing for time almost constantly.’ It becomes difficult to devote long periods to focused research. ‘We can’t do things we want to do, but also those things we were hired to do.’ One researcher from the UG quoted in the report is left with only five weeks out of fifty-two to conduct research.
When ‘up to 25 percent of Dutch students display burnout symptoms’ according to Reitz-Joosse, it is clear the consequences of a long and full year cannot be ignored. Not only are there worries about the mental health of students, the calendar as it is leaves little room for personal development: ‘it leaves students little time to take a break – do work for themselves’, she says.
While Dutch universities have made ‘a real, laudable effort, for students to work across disciplines… they have been forced into a schedule that doesn’t work across the faculties’. ‘It’s a bit implausible… to assume different disciplines have the same needs’, quips Adriaenssen. Adding: ‘What has to give is this ideal of uniformity’. In hard science faculties where students play a role in research projects, the length of the year might be suitable, but in other faculties it can mean staff spend lots of time teaching, further squeezing research time.
What are universities to do? ‘Smart’ and pragmatic recommendations are offered by the report – some of which are starting to be discussed at the UG. Add to this the flexibility faculties have to alter exam structure and allocation of reading weeks and the long academic year might have just gotten a lot shorter.
These decisions will cost effort, not money
Fewer teaching and assessment weeks, more flexibility for disciplines to develop bespoke calendars, better ‘safe guarding of teaching free periods’, and more reverence for student ‘breathing space’ and experimentation by teachers are all tabled as ways to make the year more palatable. These changes don’t cost much either.
Kretschmer offers a frank appraisal: ‘these decisions will cost effort, not money.’ The YAG would like to see the report act as ‘an impulse for discussion, an impulse for exchange.’ ‘In the short term, the UG should encourage faculties to include teaching free blocks and sabbaticals and engage in conversations about multiple resits’ she says.
The findings of the report ‘have been felt to be known for some time’, says associate professor Ward Rauws. Rauws has been spurring discussions about what needs to be done in his own faculty, Spatial Sciences, using the report’s findings as a springboard. ‘Attempting to implement a discussion’ asking questions at a faculty board level like ‘what can we take up from this’ are essential to get the ball rolling, he says.
What shape concrete changes will take remains to be seen. But, the flexibility of faculties with autonomy over timetable changes and particularly assessment structures means making changes can be straightforward. ‘This flexibility is good news for change’, remarks Adriaenssen.
So does this mean the end of the academic year as we know it? Likely not, say Reitz-Joosse and Adriaenssen, that decision will be left up to faculties. But moves to rid the year of unnecessary examination and resits periods and to devote more time within blocks to development, research, and reading ought to see a happier and healthier campus.‘We don’t consider this the solution’ says Reitz-Joosse, but it certainly might be a good start.