Academic Calendar Rationalisation (some benefits especially for the Southern Hemisphere)

The below will briefly (sic) address: (1) Southern v Northern Hemisphere calendars & (2) Academic Calendar Rationalisation.  It turns out these are related, for universities on Southern Hemisphere calendars the issues posed by their academic calendar provide extra incentive to consider the more efficient trimester approach.

1.  Southern Hemisphere v Northern Hemisphere Academic Calendars

Its at this time of the year that I more often consider my Southern Hemisphere academic calendar.  This is when my colleagues in the Northern Hemisphere are wrapping up courses, marking/grading their final class papers/exams, or are perhaps even “done and dusted” with graduation ceremonies behind them and the long summer stretching ahead.  We, in contrast, are just now into exam period, followed by the winter break, and back to the semester by mid to late July.  We can, however, gloat when our classes finish in November and, aside from a few summer classes, do not start again till March.

Of course, any academic calendar is the manna from heaven of work schedules. We are truly lucky to work in academia. But, if one works in the international academic environment and moves between the two hemispheres’ calendars then one notices the negative consequences and issues of the two not fitting together too well. In fact, most of my Southern hemisphere colleagues do in fact feel these issues as they will typically work in an international environment of one form or another (it is the consequence of working and living in a smaller jurisdiction).  In contrast, Northern hemisphere academics typically have no idea that there is even a Southern hemisphere calendar.  When informed of it, they think it is so very strange and perhaps even a bit perverse.

Coming from a smaller jurisdiction we tend to try to adjust our interaction with the Northern Hemisphere, for they will certainly not budge – as they are the overwhelming majority.  Its true that from a population perspective, we are in a smaller jurisdiction.  Indeed most Southern Hemisphere states are somewhat off the beaten track.  Geographically most of the world’s land mass is in the Northern Hemisphere, as is a disproportionate share of the developed and dominating (often former colonial) states and legal systems.  (Though, here I do have to point out that Australia bats significantly above its weight in law, especially in the international fields.)

Thus, when we plan international conferences or invite guests from the North we try to ensure the timing fits with their calendar.  They never do the same for us (its not from being selfish, for they do not even know about our calendar).  Similarly, our visits to their institutions, by academics or students, also fits into their calendars – when possible.  While we generally are successful at such manipulations, there is no denying that we lose efficiencies and opportunities as a result of the significant differences in calendars.  Of course, we also gain some opportunities not available to those working with a Northern Hemisphere calendar.  For example, our students do not have to compete with the European and North American students for internships.  We can run programs in our breaks that permit our students to experience term time in Northern Hemisphere campuses (e.g. the UNSW Berkeley Law program).  Nonetheless, being the outlier to the major academic systems of the world may not be ideal.  Indeed, the University of Tokyo recently changed its undergraduate calendar to conform to the European and North American calendars (it also had not matched up with the European/North American model – despite sitting in the “correct” hemisphere).

Perhaps we should be taking our long holidays in the winter, to huddle under blankets at the beach – so as to maintain the integrity of and fit within a mythical world calendar.  Nope.  Not going to happen.  The beaches are, rightfully, too integral to our (as a nascent Australian I can now say “our”) culture to abandon those perfect summer holidays.   So – what can be done.  Perhaps academic calendar rationalisation.

2.  Academic Calendar Rationalisation

One development which may erode the negative consequences  is what I call academic calendar rationalisation.  At the moment most academic institutions around the world operate on some sort of semester system which includes a long summer break during which the university resources are significantly under utilized, especially their physical resources.  During those breaks, most of the students and academics and often even many administrative staff are not on campus.  The campus is mostly dormant.  The question is whether this calendar model is the most suitable for academic institutions.

There are, of course, benefits from such a comprehensive “down time”.  It permits students to recharge for the next year and allows them to gain other experiences, hopefully ones helpful to their life goals, during a long summer break.  Historically, it was also when they may have been needed back on their farms, though that rationale is mostly outdated.  The long comprehensiveness break may also permits academics to catch up on the many things pushed to the side during teaching periods.  Or academics can schedule conferences at a time when they know their colleagues are available.  The university may also find the empty campus useful, for it may then have the chance to work on buildings and grounds without worrying about disruption to university activities.  These, and other reasons, seem to support the maintenance of the long comprehensive summer break.

But, other industries or human endeavors seem to manage well without such breaks.  Furthermore , it may be that there are better approaches than simply letting all students (and in some systems, such as in the US, all academic staff) take a long period away from the university at the same period of time each year.  A trimester system is one such approach.  But can those other approaches, especially the trimester, provide the same benefits to individual students, academics and university facilities as is currently provided by the semester system.  I believe it can – even as it should be be a more efficient use of the universities resources.  For example, a trimester system may permits three trimesters with reasonable (two to three week) breaks in between during which academic workshops or conferences can take place (and in any event, for those in Southern Hemisphere institutions there is already a problem attending conferences in the North).  Also, so long as a trimester does not require students to attend all three trimesters each year or require academics to teach all three, but rather just to attend or teach two of the three, then they each have the long break they need for catching up, recharging or working in non-academic settings.  Furthermore, if students and academic staff are each year required to select a different trimester off than they had the previous year(s) then the teaching will be evenly distributed across the trimesters.  Finally, universities should be able to maintain or upgrade facilities even with trimester’s better efficiencies (after all, other institutions manage despite year long utilization of their facilities).

In addition to being more efficient, calendar rationalisation will also permit better alignment with the calendars in the Northern Hemisphere.  For sure, they are no shortage of logistical and curricular challenges that would need to be resolved and managed for each university and faculty within the university.  But, the challenges are not insurmountable.  While the benefits may be enormous – even beyond the minor matter of global calendar fit!

By Colin B. Picker

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4 thoughts on “Academic Calendar Rationalisation (some benefits especially for the Southern Hemisphere)

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  1. Isn’t the current system of a less teaching intense summer semester (that can replace other teaching obligations) equally ok? Also I. Theme of local universities there is already a combo of 2 and 3 semester patterns. Eg UTS moving to 3 semesters.

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    1. Ah, but its not just about us. Its about the students being spread across three semesters. So a university with 50K students might then feel like one with 34K instead – an improvement to students and staff alike). Similarly, its like suddenly getting an additional 25% or more classroom space all of a sudden – without construction or fund raising. Of course, there is no free lunch. There would be a lot of work needed to make such a transformation. And a change of culture with a true commitment that all three semesters are equal.

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  2. interesting, but runs to danger of getting people in synch with their northern hemisphere colleagues, while getting them out of synch with local colleages on opposing trimesters…

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    1. True, but with careful management hopefully such harms could be avoided. Also, those misalignments may already exist due to people being away on sabbatical or result from one side working almost exclusively from home, etc. But, there is no question that the switch would be very disruptive in the short term and would come with some detriments. I suspect that on balance the benefits outweigh the costs.

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