Most universities in the English-speaking world (though as we shall note, not all) organise their academic sessions into semesters. A ‘semester’, just in case this needs to be explained, is according to the Oxford English Dictionary ‘a period or term of six months’. I point this out as a precaution to ward off those who might start talking about having three semesters in one year, a feat which could only be accomplished in another dimension in which a year had 18 months. And just to explain something else, a ‘trimester’ consists of three months, so that you could fit four (not just three) into a year.
If you were a student anywhere in these islands at about the same time as I was, then you would have been used to having your year split into ‘terms’. Generally universities would claim to have three terms in the year, but typically only two of these would be real functioning educational entities. The third would be for some sort of revision, updates and perhaps social revelry; it would in any case typically be shorter.
But even back then there was a different model of which many of us would have been aware. American universities had semesters (though not all), as had the Germans. But then we also heard about the then still quite new Stirling University and its use of modular programmes taught in semesters – an innovation which by the 1990s began to gain ground elsewhere in the UK. The University of Hull adopted semesterisation and modularisation in the mid 1990s while I worked there, and since then that is the only framework I have know, in the UK and Ireland.
The last university in Ireland to embrace semesters was Trinity College Dublin. Actually, ’embrace’ is too strong a word – it was more a stiff handshake. Semesters were introduced, but the College retained the old term-based nomenclature, and decided there would be no examinations of any kind at the end of the first semester. Now TCD is proposing to complete the change, but with some resistance from staff who, according to a report in the Examiner newspaper, think it will turn the university into a ‘second-rate polytechnic’.
I suspect some of the resistance is about a dislike of change and a wish to be seen in the same company as Oxford or Cambridge (which don’t have semesters). But it is worth asking whether the pedagogy of modular, semester-based programmes has been as much to the forefront of reform as it should have been. There is little doubt that any even modest attempt to pursue interdisciplinary formation is assisted by a modular structure; but this should be seen alongside a better understanding of what the real unit of knowledge should be in a contemporary university. Modules and semesters do give us the tools for modern learning and scholarship, but these tools are only useful if we know what we are building. Are we delivering bite-sized chunks of studying, or do we have a pedagogical concept of learning that underpins the structures? Many universities do have that concept, or vision, I think – but as a sector, I’m far less sure that we have ever explained this properly.