Back in 1978, I sat my final undergraduate examinations in Trinity College Dublin. In those days TCD had its exams in September, thus ruining everyone’s summer, and the last paper I tackled was on a Saturday towards the end of the month. Matters were not helped by the fact that, on the following Monday two days later, I was due to start as a PhD student in the University of Cambridge.
But if that was crazy, maybe we should ask whether the whole concept of an ‘academic year’ is now out of date. We enrol students for a September starting date, mostly, and round about this time of year they sit their exams. At least that’s how it is in this part of the world. Occasionally now we do make available entry routes that bring students in at other times, particularly just after the New Year. And for some postgraduate degree programmes it is even more flexible.
However, the concept of a shared journey through the course, experienced by students in groups, has value. If students came and went around the year as if they were using a train, it would become impossible to run a curriculum or maintain a group setting. In addition, it can be argued that modular structures require similar dates across subjects and disciplines, because without that you could not maintain an interdisciplinary menu.
So are we still stuck with the ‘academic year’, or is there scope for some creativity? This may become an increasingly important question, as students become less willing to set aside fixed years in their lives devoted exclusively to study. However, as long as we continue to see learning as consisting of a series of fixed segments that need to be experienced strictly in sequence, it will not be easy. Still, maybe that is what learning requires. Or then again, maybe we do not ask enough questions about pedagogy in a changing world.