Changes to teaching periods at Deakin University will reduce the quality of education at the Victorian-based institution, students and staff have told Crikey.

The university shifted from a semester system to a trimester schedule last year across its four campuses in Melbourne, Geelong and Warrnambool, citing benefits such as increased student and staff flexibility. Instead of running classes across two semesters and a reduced summer teaching period, three equal trimesters have been implemented.

But a Facebook group set up by disgruntled students has attracted some 1300 members. “Trying to study and just realised how much Deakin’s Trimester System fails,” posted one member. “We deserve a FULL THIRTEEN WEEKS OF CLASSES. Enough of this cash grab,” posted another.

Concerns have been raised over the reduction of teaching periods, from 13 weeks in 2008 to 11 weeks plus an extra week of revision in some subjects this year. Students have also complained of reduced exam preparation time, known as Swotvac. The seven-day Swotvac was cancelled in 2009, and the compromise of a three-day study period has been reached for this year.

The changes mean this year’s exam period will last only seven days, down from 14 days last year. Night exams have also been introduced, leaving open the possibility that students will be scheduled to sit three exams in one day.

The university administration promoted the increased flexibility of the trimester system, which allows students to take time off or study a reduced load during the first two trimesters, then make up the remaining subjects during the third trimester, held over the summer.

Students have pointed out that this flexibility is mostly theoretical, due to the reduced number of subjects on offer in the third trimester. In 2009, 1381 units were offered in Trimester 1, 1550 units in Trimester 2, and 214 units in Trimester 3.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Philip Clarke extolled the virtues of the system when contacted by Crikey. Enrolments in T3 for 2009 were up 44% over summer enrolments the year before, he said: “It seems that much of its popularity is coming from the desire of students to spread their load more evenly over the year.”

If a unit was taught in Trimester 1 it might have a lot of competition for enrolment, he said, since so many different subjects are on offer. “In T3 it might be more likely to get an appropriate enrolment number,” he said, adding that subjects require “something in the vicinity of 20 or 30” enrolments to be viable.

He added that a “wide-ranging review” was planned for later this year in order to “iron out any bunks”.

Not everyone agrees. “The students were really annoyed,” said Deakin University Student Association (DUSA) President Kali Watson, adding that many second- and third-year students in particular were “disgruntled”. “The teaching and learning is not as good with a trimester system.”

The jury is out on student benefit. “It’s really hard to evaluate at this point because Deakin’s first preferences went up 16% in 2010,” Watson told Crikey. “It’s really appealing to students who want to get their degree over and done with quicker.”

“If you’re a potential student thinking about coming to Deakin it seems very appealing, but when you’re actually in the system and affected by the ramifications of T3 such as night exams, your perceptions would change.”

DUSA has set up a working group to conduct its own review, separate from the university inquiry. The association will distribute face-to-face and online surveys to students next week to gauge student response.

The trimester system raises concerns in terms of research as well as teaching, according to National Tertiary Education Union Deakin branch president Colin Long.

“Part of the problem of the trimester system is it reduces the time for research,” he told Crikey. “The time that most people get to do research is over summer.”

There are serious consequences for academics who don’t produce enough research, he explained. “Basically you’re threatened with your job or you end up becoming an academic that only does teaching. Good teaching should be informed by up-to-date research.

“We would prefer to return to the system we had a few years ago where we had a summer semester. It was designed to provide a limited number of opportunities, for example, internships overseas and specialist-type teaching opportunities.

“We don’t support the spreading of the academic year across three semesters because it has reduced the quality of teaching that students are getting.”

Peter Fray

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