Trimesters and UNE: A Closer Look
Last year saw a major change take place at UNE with the introduction of trimesters. Under the new system, two 13-week Semesters were reduced to 12 weeks and the 9-week Summer School was adjusted to 11 weeks. The intensive school periods in the middle of semesters, and the breaks between semesters, were both cut from 3 to 2 weeks long. The Nucleus looks at why these changes were brought about, what the repercussions have been over the first year, and how the future of UNE could be affected by trimesterisation.
In 2012 UNE jumped in the deep end with trimesters and the effect was felt throughout the university.
So why do we have trimesters?
The decision to move UNE to a trimester system first came from the Vice-Chancellor Jim Barber in late June 2010. The baton was handed to Eve Woodberry, Pro-Vice Chancellor of Students and Social Inclusion, who was asked to put together a discussion paper; it was released in September 2010. Logistics were worked out and implemented during 2011 in a consultation and review process.
In February 2012, UNE began operating on a trimester system.
President of UNEG, David Mailler, has described the first year, 2012, as a mixture of winners and losers. He believes that since the implementation of trimesters, consultation with students has come to a halt.
No official survey about trimesters has yet gone out to students and staff – the first will hopefully be coming out at the end of February or start of March. The Pro-Vice Chancellor of Students and Social Inclusion, Eve Woodberry, has said an external review will also take place in February/March 2013. The majority of feedback so far has been given to representatives in student boards, the academic board, and unions.
Different levels of negative and positive feedback have been informally reported by these representatives. Whilst fast-track or catch-up study is pleasing some, the condensed timetable for the first two teaching periods has led to issues such as high workloads and feedback delays.
In an academic board paper the goals for UNE’s move to trimesters were stated as:
1. increased flexibility for students
2. increased retention and completion by distance education students, and
3. increased student demand
Prior to 2012, a university would estimate the number of students they would enrol the coming year. Government funding was provided for each place in the nominated quota and did not change if university places exceeded or fell short of their estimations. Now, these federal contributions are dependent on the actual number of students that enrol.
The previous model worked in UNE’s favour as enrolments often did not reach speculated figures. Now, the more students a uni can attract, the more funding it gets. The Nucleus understands that these implications are a major impetus behind the decision to move to trimesters.
Australian universities are now thinking competition, they’re thinking markets; they’re trying to get as many students as possible.
Other universities with large numbers of distance education students have already moved towards attracting these bees with trimester honey, with greatly varying methods and levels of success. UNE has a huge external cohort - about 80% of students - with part-time external study sometimes taking up to 10 years. Recent figures show less than 40% of external students complete their degrees. UNE, under the directorship of the Vice-Chancellor, is marketing itself to external students (a niche market) and international students (who pay full fees) wanting to fast-track their degrees by studying over the third trimester.
How is Trimester 3 different to Summer School?
Primarily in length, having gone from 9 to 11 weeks, and in the number and variety of units offered - whilst only one of the 170 units offered in the 2012/2013 Trimester 3 period was delivered internally, UNE says this number is a starting point from which a substantial Trimester 3 offering, including more internal units, will be built.
So what did trimesters look like in 2012?
SHORTENED TEACHING PERIODS: THE SQUEEZE
Work and administration for non-academic and academic staff alike has increased, with additional enrolments, less time to compile and release unit results, units having to be remodelled, and shorter timeframes for delivering content, responding to students, and assignment and exam marking.
For students, the time to learn unit content, research and write their
assignments was reduced. Feedback to students has often been delayed, creating problems with the flow of learning and exam preparation, with feedback for one assessment sometimes arriving after the due date of the next.
There has been talk that some feedback previously sent out by post (to external students) will be replaced by online feedback to cut down on waiting times. We’re not sure what this idea will look like, but UNEG has voiced the need for feedback comments to remain specific to the individual.
The end of Trimester 1 saw a rise in the amount of units for which results were not available. Moreover, the release of results falls on the first day of the next trimester, or up to two weeks later if delayed. This is a major concern for students with pre-requisite units or those trying to prepare for the next study period.
Additionally, the10 day catch-up period for academics between the last of exams and the next round of intensive schools has been all but eliminated, and concerns have also been raised regarding both staff and students about ‘burn-out’ due to the reduced holiday recovery periods.
The 10 day catch-up period for academics between the last of exams and the next round of intensive schools has been all but eliminated.
The Quality debate
Unit restructuring may help ease intensity of workload and hopefully this will happen between this year and next. It’s anticipated to include moving the date of assessments and content forward in the trimester.
However, whether or not the amount of content will be reduced is another matter: a squeeze is happening between the perceived quality of a unit and the quantity of workload per week. On the one hand, there is a risk of diluting the value of our units and our degrees. Accredited Courses (such as nursing or pharmacy) also need to comply with third party accreditation standards. All courses need to comply with TEQSA (Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency).
On the other, students are struggling, particularly in high volume reading units or units with intensive practical components. If hours remain the same, an extra ½ hours per unit per week will be expected of students. At this level, 7 hours a day for 6 days a week will be an average expectation of a full time student work-load. This might affect internal students who previously studied at a level of 4 units a semester and used their summer break to earn money, as many students do.
The Academic Board and TEQSA are currently discussing the quantity versus quality debate and a representative has mentioned each respective unit is going to be individually assessed, with a balance between the two being the final goal.
HOLIDAYS Another issue is the misalignment of university holidays with school holidays. This year, for example, UNE winter holidays fall between 18th-30th June - completely out of alignment with the NSW school holiday period of 2nd-13th July.
Around 75% of UNE students are mature-aged and 70% are female, suggesting many students are likely the primary carer of their children. Student representative Katja Ingham has found that parents, especially single parents, have found it hard to juggle children and university during the autumn, winter and spring school holidays.
Third trimester units are often online and not compulsory, so the trimester 3 period can be spent with children over the summer holidays. Whilst the uni plans to introduce more internal units next Trimester 3, the number of external units should also rise.
Intensive school clashes are not a new problem, but with intensives trying to fit into an even shorter period of time the problem has now been exacerbated. This is especially true for science departments, whose units are reliant on their specialised facilities. The outcome is that while core units must still be available, choice of electives will be reduced. Departments are trying to work on solutions such as block teaching of externals and internals together.
Trimester 3 statistics
T3 units: 170
Only one was offered internally.
T3 enrolments: 8300
This included 1250 new students.
Advantages for students are flexibility with units, including repeating failed units; being able to fast-track a degree; and being able to start uni in the Tri-3 intake period. These points have generated considerable positive feedback from students.
Trimester 3 enrolments and new student intake far exceeded the university’s expectations, with 8300 enrolments including 1250 new students for the trimester.
Although we don’t know yet if these figures will affect the amount of new students enrolling in Trimester 1 this year, spreading the load rather than increasing the number of students who go to UNE, early figures show that application numbers are similar to last year.
External students increased their load slightly and student representatives have found students asking for more units being offered next year.
When UNE sneezes, Armidale catches cold
Armidale’s business sector was hit hard with 5 and a half weeks less of UNE’s internal cohort spending money in town. UNE’s response to this is a promise of more on-campus units next year and they are hoping this will ease the problem.
Armidale Dumaresq Council mayor Jim Maher said that the Council hadn’t comprehended the full impact that this change would have on local business activity. Whilst confident the effects won’t be long-lasting, Maher is aware that if the internal offerings are not improved next time around as promised, the town will suffer.
Are you considering studying part-time?
A minimum of six units in one year counts as ‘full-time’ for Centrelink purposes – under the new Trimester system, this CAN mean staggering them over all three Trimesters. For example, if you plan to study two units in Tri 1 and just one unit in Tri 2, you could study three units in Tri 3 – and still count as full-time for the full year. You need to tell them in advance that this is what you plan to do.
If you’re going to talk to Centrelink to convince them your load fits the bill, take:
- A copy of your transcript/enrolment
- A letter from the university or faculty explaining that 2-3 units can be a fulltime load
Keep an eye on the Nucleus WEBSITE - we will keep you updated if we find out more information about Trimesters & Centrelink.
There is an increasing amount of administrative work expected of academic staff, particularly with the current need to restructure units.
A complication with trying to offer units to both those who want to fast-track their degrees and those who want to continue studying as they have been is the issue of what units will be offered in trimester three. The Nucleus has been assured that units for trimester 3 that are designed to fast-track a degree will also be offered in during the first two trimesters.
This does mean that the mapping of units across the year becomes increasingly complicated.
However, the growing amount of choice for students may mean less choice for academics regarding when they teach. The National Tertiary Education Industry Union (NTEU) has concerns that the negotiation of teaching periods will become increasingly inflexible, as has already been indicated will be the case by at least one School contacted by the Nucleus.
Currently a great many permanent academics have chosen to continue teaching in the first two trimesters. Most of the units offered in Trimester 3 have therefore been coordinated and taught by casuals, around which there are further concerns relating to quality, working conditions and reliability.
There has been an indication that in trimester reshuffling, 37 new positions are being budgeted for, said to include 20 academic positions and 17 professional staff (that is, non-academic staff) positions. However, more detail on these positions is difficult to obtain. Questions on whether they will be permanent or casual and when they are scheduled to start (positions can take up to 12 months to fill) are still unclear.
The Actual Figures
While response to trimesters has raised concerns over the limited time-frame for getting through coursework and assessments, a comparison between 2011 (semester) and 2012 (trimester) results has shown that student performance has essentially remained consistent. Attrition (withdrawal) rates did vary, rising for externals and falling slightly for internals, with great variation between different schools. Indeed student unit satisfaction increased marginally in the first year of trimesters according to results presented by the academic board. The academic board has, however, identified external attrition rates as a problem and have stated that it needs further investigation.
We still need to ask whether full-time study has become more difficult under the trimester system, but a break-down of part-time and full-time figures is not available.
It’s unlikely that UNE will ever change back to a semester system and the financial sustainability of UNE is certainly important to everyone who has a connection with the university. However it’s also certain that trimesters have caused more than a little upset and there are some cumbersome issues which need resolving. UNE’s biggest task now is to acknowledge and deal with the issues fairly, transparently, and with all parties being taken seriously.
In talking with UNE management, staff and students, the rhetoric doesn’t always line up. The culture of UNE is often divisive and knowing where other cohorts are coming from is important if UNE is to be constructive. This is particularly true for those who have been appointed to help solve the issues of trimesterisation.
Surveys on our response to trimesters are scheduled to come out at the end of Febuary/early March. UNE management will need to put in support mechanisms for those who have found themselves to be at the losing end of trimesters and these surveys will help in better understanding the winners and losers involved. As students, it is important that we respond to them so UNE management is as informed as it can be when making their decisions.
Trimesterisation is a complicated issue and judging trimesters is not as simple as declaring it a success or a failure. But life isn’t black and white - and isn’t that what we come to university to learn?
- Elsie Baker