“You can feel the energy that has been released here!”, senior official Heidi Bousson said in the University of Amsterdam’s auditorium on Tuesday afternoon. She is director of Higher Education at the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. The attendees nod. There is optimism in the air.
The academic year could perhaps be very different in the future. Some 60 lecturers and policy officers, and a few students, gathered for the launch of a nationwide experiment with a ‘smart academic year’. Almost all universities (except TU Delft and the Open University) are participating. Hanze University of Applied Sciences Groningen is the only university of applied sciences taking part. The University of Amsterdam and Erasmus University Rotterdam have a coordinating role in the project.
The idea of a ‘smarter academic year’ comes from the Young Academy, the society of relatively young top scientists affiliated to the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. A comparison with other countries revealed that the Dutch academic year is up to nine weeks longer than elsewhere in Europe. This creates a higher workload, at universities in particular.
Minister of Education, Culture and Science Robbert Dijkgraaf saw potential in an experiment and made nearly13 million euros available for that purpose. There are nevertheless major challenges: how can you change the timetable? There is no single model that works for all institutions, so there will be all kinds of pilot projects.
Opening the afternoon, Young Academy President Marie-José van Tol explains the difficulty. As a lecturer in academic education, you give lectures and supervise students more and more intensively until an exam period. And before you know it, May has arrived. You try to attend another congress. And the big research and writing tasks are postponed until the summer. It never stops – you never get a break.
The Young Academy has a few suggestions: change the teaching calendar, reduce the number of teaching weeks, schedule teaching-free periods and encourage lecturer and student autonomy She gets a big round of applause. The participants then split up to deliberate in smaller sessions.
In one of the sessions, project leader Christaan van den Berg, of the Ministry of Education, provided more information about the experiment. The programmes may, for example, implement new curricula, blended learning and other forms of assessment and concentrate or spread out research tasks. At this point, everything is possible: institutions can share their views on what does and does not work.
There are already several concrete ideas. At the end or beginning of a teaching period, for example, there could be a non-timetabled week to allow both students and lecturers to catch their breath and prepare for the next period.
Van den Berg emphasised that the ministry does not intend to save money with this experiment. It is about creating more space to meet the wishes of lecturers and students.
Interestingly, only one university of applied sciences is involved in the project. Van den Berg said that universities of applied sciences had shown little interest. Marieke Klaaysen, vitality advisor at Hanze UAS, thought that was strange. “Despite having more interim holidays, UAS lecturers still have to contend with significant peaks and troughs. We actually have a high rate of workload-related complaints, and we too sometimes work through the holidays.” A recently published report by the UAS research agency Zestor confirms this.
Relief and optimism prevail, but the attendees do struggle with several dilemmas. What do you do with resit weeks, for example, asks someone from Leiden University. Those resits make things easier for students, she says. “But at the same time, they do make the academic year incredibly long for both lecturers and students.” A good question, Van den Berg agrees, to which there is no conclusive answer at the moment.
A bigger issue, of course, is how the ‘smart’ academic year would affect teaching. By law, 60 credits represent 1,680 hours of teaching and self-study, and that cannot change. So, if the academic year is to be made shorter, everything will have to be done in less time.
However, ‘smarter’ does not necessarily mean ‘shorter’, Van den Berg suggests. Those non-timetabled weeks could also create ‘breathing space’. Lecturers may also need to consider whether they cover too much material: “Go through it with a fine-tooth comb.”
Simply having fewer teaching weeks will not reduce the workload, however. Could the solution lie in interactive behaviour and expectations? One lecturer talked agitatedly about a student who recently asked her to check his work before ten o’clock on Sunday evening. That was more convenient for him. A student, in turn, said that weekend exams were very common at the University of Groningen, “We want to be able to enjoy our weekend too”, she sighed.
One question remained unanswered: how can you scrap teaching sessions without adversely impacting the education in the long run? Is this really ‘smarter’, or is it primarily ‘less?’
This question was indicative of the afternoon: there are many questions, to which the institutions will seek answers during the experiment. The first effects may already be visible next academic year.