Less than two weeks remain until the student body enjoy what will be the last ever Reading Week in the University calendar. However, the semester reform agreed on in November of last year by the Academic Council is still arousing frustration amongst staff and students.
From 2012 the new calendar will comprise of a 14-week semester without a break, an earlier start to the year in September, examinations before Christmas and a five week inter-semester holiday.
One member of the Faculty of Arts has spoken to The Saint about the disastrous consequences the calendar changes could have on the overall student experience as well as the workload of staff.
Members of staff fear that many students will book their flights before exams in order to avoid extortionate seasonal air fares leading to deferred assessments.
Furthermore, a 14-week semester without a break will impact on the time tutors have to dedicate to marking reducing the detailed feedback each student receives. Students looking at next year’s semester dates will also find the official end date of the semester is Christmas Eve.
With unpredictable weather closing airports last winter leaving many students stranded, it is not impossible that students leaving so close to Christmas might not make it home for the holiday.
An overriding factor in the debate about the swift introduction of the semester reform is the exclusivity of the discussion and the lack of accountability. Professor Willmer from the School of Biology occupied the position of Proctor up until last year and it was she who presented the paper on the change to the calendar to the Academic Council.
Though Professor Willmer continues to be a member of the Biology department, she is no longer present at the Academic Council to be held accountable for her proposal. The debate on the semester reform has now been inherited by current Proctor Professor Lorna Milne.
Professor Milne refers to Willmer’s preface to the paper that students were included in the discussion but last year’s Director of Representation, Siena Parker, stumbled for an answer when asked by The Saint to comment on the issue.
Ms Parker said, “I can’t really speak on behalf of the University, but I believe they see it as beneficial”. Ms Parker’s hesitation in her statement might lead to suggestions she did not ‘know’ but only ‘believes’ it to be so.
One change advocated by the reform is the promotion of “more innovative means of assessment” but what this comprises of is, according to members of staff, unclear.
The anonymous tutor said that, “despite anti-plagiarism software, the only way we can be sure that we are seeing a student’s own work in an essay-based assessment system is through reading what is written in exam conditions. This is why Ph.Ds are still examined by viva voce examination – it is the only way you can verify that the thesis is the work of the individual concerned […] Exams are vital to the integrity of our degree system.”
The member of the Arts Faculty continues, “If you do away with reading week, I think we shall have no option but to scale down the feedback that we offer on those crucial first assessments.” With fees tripling for some students, a decrease in the quality of the service students receive will undoubtedly affect the ‘Student Experience’ at St Andrews.
A year after the original decision was taken the University is now retracing its steps regarding reading week. Professor Milne said “Detailed discussions of this aspect of the changes is still going on, and firm guidelines about it will not be issued before the end of the week.”
Staff have been advised to ‘think creatively’ about how to resolve the problems brought up by the reform.
Our anonymous source likens this to “being knocked off your bicycle by a motorist who then exhorts you to think creatively about how you will get yourself to hospital.”
It is hoped students will lobby their school presidents and union representatives in order to ensure their voices are heard.
The Saint will be following developments on this subject.