Question: What’s the best way to distract students from universally panned policies online?

A) An email circulated by the Vice-Chancellor explaining the decision

B) A fun infographic that prepared students before selecting units from the university

C) A cute cactus trojan horsing the announcement mere weeks before uni goes back

Answer: Only the University where students are told to ‘pursue impossible’ would pick ‘C’

The latest post from UWA students announced that the university has made the bold move to cut from a thirteen-week teaching period to twelve weeks placed this poor unfortunate cactus in the firing line of many student’s ire. I’m going to look into what brought us here, what is being done about it, and what the ideal solution will be to this confusion.

To clear the confusion surrounding what a 12-week teaching semester looks like. This doesn’t look like an extra week off during the semester, but rather longer break during the holiday periods. This may feel like it’s being dropped on us out of the blue, but it’s actually been on the cards since 2016.

Back then, the proposal to reduce the number of weeks in semester was to coincide with the introduction of summer school. The intention behind summer school was to allow for greater flexibility within degrees. Summer school units are only six weeks, so they let us pick up units as intensives, redo units we’ve failed in half the time, try something new on holiday, or, if you’re an international student, finish your degree within the teaching year without reapplying for a visa.

The alternative posed to 12-weeks plus summer school was to implement trimesters. The problem with trimesters is there is seemingly no flexibility, think about the way semesters work but over three period instead of two. Comparatively, summer school allows people to do a trimester load if they wish, but, importantly, doesn’t force people into the model. Rather those that need it, use it.

Authors Note: This piece isn’t about trimesters because trimesters aren’t even on the table anymore, it just explains why we have 12-week semesters.

The decision to choose summer schools over trimesters was made with an understanding that despite the harm that could occur from reducing the number of teaching weeks, the increased access to a non-traditional pathway seems a logical move. At least in 2016.

UWA is not alone in these changes and UWA students are certainly not alone in their frustrations. When a similar system was rolled out at ANU in 2016 the student affiliate, ANUSA, ran a similar campaign to the one proposed by the UWA student reps. Their survey results showed that a significant proportion of undergraduate and postgraduate students had a negative experience citing stress as a significant point of harm.

Fast-forward to 2017. The motion to implement a 12-week semester was placed before the academic board again and was approved, despite student reps voicing their concerns and voting on bloc against it. As a compromise, the proposal was pushed back to semester two in order to better prepare students, academics and administration.

The proposal was then taken to the Education Council and was unanimously rejected by FacSocs in July 2017. From there the Guild were expected to liaise with University executive on unit modification. Essentially making sure the content over 13 weeks could be adapted into 12. Given the decision at every stage from 2016 seemed to be out of student’s hands, this seemed to be the only way to ensure students had at least some role.

So, as a result summer school went ahead at the beginning of this year between two 13-week teaching semesters and frankly it was still a success. 1300 enrolments and higher SURF scores compared against the normal semester* highlights the necessity and demand for a summer school. In 2016 the academic board’s proposal to drop to 12 weeks was on the back of the notion that 13 weeks and a summer school could never coexist. Yet the bar was well and truly met just this year.

Which brings us to semester 2 2018. So, I hear you asking, what action is being taking in the immediate future?

Well for a start, two motions are being put before the Guild Council to start an opposition to this proposal moving forward. The motions are as follows:

9.7  The 105th Guild Council:

a) Stands in opposition to UWA’s choice to move from 13 to 12 week 
semesters, as recommended by the 2017 Education Council.

b)  Commission a student survey to be conducted in semester 2, to produce a
 report on the impact of the shorter semester on students; and

c)  Directs the Guild President to develop an options paper regarding standard and non-standard teaching periods for presentation to the
University.

Moved: Conrad Hogg; Seconded: Megan Lee.

9.8  The 105th Guild Council:

a) Recognises the expected negative impact that changing to 12 week semesters (with the same amount of content as 13 weeks) will have on 
students.

b) Will encourage the University to liaise with the Guild to ensure that all students are supported by this sudden change, and consult any further changes with students; and

c) Opposes any moves towards a trimester academic system.

Moved: Bradan Sonnendecker; Seconded: Kate Fletcher.

It seems that 180 angry reacts on a Facebook post wasn’t a clear enough message to the university executive. With the proposed move to get student feedback to rally for change. UWA Guild President Megan Lee who when asked about the planned campaign stated:

“We’ll be launching the campaign petition and running some on-campus events to get student feedback and signatures. Simultaneously we’ll polish off our options paper based off of research from ANU and our own data regarding summer school and send that to the university as soon as possible.”

When asked why this move hadn’t been communicated as publicly sooner Lee stated:

“So the decision was made public a while ago [both in 2016 and 2017] but we felt there was considerable resistance from the university so delaying the campaign in our opinion makes for a stronger opposition. More students will be galvanised and it will make the university more cognisant of what the Guild and the wider student population feel about the changes.”

At the end of the day, maybe you are sitting there like I was as a Political Science undergrad thinking ‘thank god, one less week of lectures, dream come true’. But don’t forget that this places increased pressure on already overworked academics and students in fields that already struggle to manage the dense amount of content packed into a 13 week unit. The notion that students have to simply cover their content earlier in order to manage to this new workload seems an unfair and unnecessary burden.

We’ve got a summer school people use and enjoy. A semester schedule that doesn’t require pre-learning. And a cactus that doesn’t need to deliver bad news.

Joshua Cahill | @joosh_cahill


*SURF RESULTS as provided by Graham Brown, UWA Dean of Courseworks

First, average SURF scores for all units in Summer compared with all units in S1 and S2 2017:

Question S1 2017 S2 2017 Summer Difference
Q1: Clear learning expectations 3.242 3.268 3.385 0.130
Q2: Clear assessment 3.293 3.308 3.383 0.083
Q3: Appropriate assessment 3.349 3.360 3.438 0.084
Q4: Well-organized 3.199 3.230 3.373 0.159
Q5: Adequate resources 3.199 3.221 3.329 0.119
Q6: Overall experience 3.255 3.272 3.481 0.218

Second, we compared the subset of Summer units that had also run in a standard teaching period so that we could produce a more like-for-like comparison.  Here are the averages:

Question Summer 2017/18 Previous Period Difference
Q1: Clear learning expectations 3.417 3.392 0.025
Q2: Clear assessment 3.387 3.346 0.042
Q3: Appropriate assessment 3.517 3.497 0.020
Q4: Well-organized 3.415 3.361 0.054
Q5: Adequate resources 3.347 3.332 0.014
Q6: Overall experience 3.507 3.426 0.080