When is three terms really three terms?

For several years, my colleagues and I have been subjected to ‘the UNSW 3+ calendar’. A common ‘sales pitch’ has for years been that UTS has gone to three terms and it works wonderfully for them. The veracity of this was publicly questioned at the time (2018) and since, such that I would consider that there has been more than adequate opportunity for such statements to be corrected or nuanced to a position that has proper integrity by 2021.

The most recent incarnation of this statement was made in an all staff forum:

…except it says UTS tried terms and abandoned and dropped them. Now I actually talked, I rang a colleague at UTS to check this. It’s not true. UTS still has 3 terms: spring, autumn and summer, and they’re getting increasing enrolments in the summer semester, which is becoming a very big one for them. 14 Australian universities have extended academic calendars with three terms…”

The point has been reached where I feel compelled to put a sword through the spin and interrogate the facts, so let us do exactly this. As I would say in my video lectures, let’s bring up some slides

The image above is a comparative graphical representation of the competing calendars of UNSW (left column each year) and UTS (right column each year) for the years 2014 through to 2021. The start and ends are accurate to +/- 2 days (+/- 1mm) under an assumption that each month has 30 days so that it occupies 15mm of vertical grid to keep the graph easily drawable. The data has been obtained from the official UNSW and UTS calendars for those years by some mix of backwards link-smithing through UTS’s archived handbooks and UNSW’s academic calendar website using the Wayback Machine. What is presented in each instance is the full term from Day 1 of Week 1 to the formal last day of that term’s exam period to ensure the calendars are being mapped on a like-for-like basis (this explains the overlap between the summer and autumn semesters at UTS for 2021 — the summer term exams overlap the start of their autumn term this year).

The most obvious conclusion: Any attempt to say UNSW ‘has three terms’ in the same sense that UTS ‘has three terms’, or the other 13 Australian universities for that matter, is just plain wrong. The correct and honest interpretation/representation would be either:

  • UNSW has 3 terms plus a summer term and UTS and the other universities have 2 terms plus a summer term.

or

  • UNSW has 4 terms and UTS and the other universities have 3 terms.

To argue otherwise, including trying to obfuscate or articulate to a position where UNSW and UTS somehow both have 3 terms lacks the data-driven integrity that one would expect from a university.

An additional comment was made in the same all staff forum, namely:

The primary motive is that it provides more opportunities for students to study, and that in turn provides more jobs and better stability for staff… and it also aligns us better with society and it breaks down the notion that universities are ivory towers where staff teach for only 24 out of the 52 weeks in a year.

People can decide their own feelings on this comment, especially the end of it, but let us interrogate this statement briefly:

Going back to 2016, before the UNSW 3+ calendar commenced in 2019. There were 2 semesters, each with 12 teaching weeks, and a summer term of 6-8 weeks length, giving a total of 30-32 weeks total teaching in each calendar year.

In the UNSW 3+ calendar, after the introduction of flexibility week, we have 3 terms, each with 9 teaching weeks, and a summer term with 4 weeks, giving a total of 31 weeks teaching in each calendar year.

In contrast, UTS has 2 terms, each with 12 weeks, along with a summer term, which is also 12 weeks, giving a total of 36 teaching weeks a year. Sydney University, on the other hand, has two terms of 13 weeks, giving a total of 26 teaching weeks per year. It does not run a summer term presently. This has UNSW, with 31 teaching weeks a year, at slightly more than Sydney University and slightly fewer than UTS.

If we consider UNSW alone, before 3+ we had 30-32 weeks and after 3+ we have 31 weeks. There is no net gain. Even if we just focus on the main terms, we have 2 x 12 = 24 weeks before 3+ and just 3 x 9 = 27 weeks after 3+. I’ll let people decide for themselves if shuffling a few weeks around and adding a fancy new name shatters the ivory tower.

What is the price? The price, I’d argue, is twofold. First, our administrative overhead in terms of exams, enrolment, admin, etc. has gone up by at least 33%. Second, the physical and mental load on both staff and students has gone up by a commensurate amount (some would argue more) due to the compression of time available to teach & learn in — this is a longer argument that I will let people more expert in human performance aspects related to learning & teaching prosecute instead.

Efficiency? Effectiveness? That’s a separate debate. But, at the very least, we need to be fully honest about the comparative realities of university calendars because the entire basis of science and academia is that there are facts and objective truth. And if the leaders of our organisation cannot get to that objective truth, then how do they expect any trust from staff and students or any interest in following them — the truth always matters.

2 thoughts on “When is three terms really three terms?

  1. “First, our administrative overhead in terms of exams, enrolment, admin, etc. has gone up by at least 133%.”

    I expect you mean 33%.

  2. Pingback: Three Terms Pt II — What should Attila do? | Fear and Loathing in Academia

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