Posted tagged ‘University of Stirling’

Living with semesters

February 7, 2017

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.

The never-ending accumulation of courses? Or no change at all?

September 1, 2015

Recently the University of Stirling is reported to have indicated that ‘consideration is being given’ to ‘the sustainability of religious studies’, one of its courses. Current students are being assured that they will be able to complete their studies, but apparently there are no guarantees beyond that. This news has led to a number of actions, including a petition, and statements of support for the continuation of the course from various prominent people. And of course there is a lively social media campaign. Some of the efforts to stop the closure can be viewed here.

Stirling University itself does not seem to have offered any comment at all – certainly the news section of its website makes no reference to the issue; and that may not be an ideal way of communicating. However, it is not my intention to critique the decision, not least because I know nothing about the university’s reasons, or even intentions. But there is a wider issue here that universities have to grapple with: at a time of limited resources and income, how can any institution develop and innovate if it cannot let go anything it has already accumulated?

Times change, knowledge changes, resources change, fashions change, demand changes – and all of this must produce changes over time in a university’s offering. Too often, however, what this means is that universities offer new courses and programmes while also holding on to everything they have already got, even where demand for some has dropped. Every so often statistics are released showing that specific courses continue with tiny numbers.

Universities are often quite bad at discontinuing things – which realistically they must do; but then again, when they try, they often face howls of protest from within and without the institution. In 2010 Middlesex University decided to close its Philosophy department, a move that led immediately to an outcry and the attendant petitions. How can such steps then be taken? Or if they cannot, is it in practice not acceptable for a university to re-envision what it does?

Stirling University may be right or may be wrong to consider closing religious studies (if indeed it is doing that), and Middlesex University may have been wrong in 2010 (as I suspect it was). And yet, you cannot keep a university alive and well without taking some difficult decisions from time to time. We do not seem to be able to work out how to do that, and do it with the support and consent of the wider community of stakeholders. This is something that we will need to get better at.