Christmas break: the long and short of it


Coming back from the calm of St Andrews’ lengthy winter vacation most students here have experienced a rest unmatched by any of our American or British counterparts. Indeed, “lengthy” seems an unsuitable term to describe the sheer extent of the dull winter days away from Fife. Currently, St Andrews’ long winter break is rivaled in the UK only by Oxford and Cambridge (Oxbridge) universities, whose students enjoy a 6-week break between their Michelmas and Hilary/Lent terms. Yet the reason for the length of the St Andrews winter break remains a mystery to its students.

Oxbridge’s unorthodox term dates were a result of the Christian religious calendar, and have been in effect since the 13th century. Their term dates clearly reflect the universities’ strong ties with tradition – an element which strongly resonates with St Andrews’ status as a university. Yet even though St Andrews has had strong historical ties with the church, it is unclear whether its present-day long winter break has any religious origin.

An alternative explanation for St Andrews’ extended holiday may lie in the clear monetary profits such breaks have for the university. During the 2013/2014 winter break, the university saved £37,456 as a result of a reduction in energy bills while the halls and university facilities were vacated. Indeed, during the summer, many of the university halls are transformed into hotel accommodation, most notably that of Agnes Blackadder Hall which becomes a 3-star bed and breakfast during the summer months. It is clear, then, that there is an financial advantage for the University in scheduling extended breaks. Yet notwithstanding the insinuations that inevitably arise from this financial profit for the University, there are clear gains for St Andrews students in having long winter holidays.

Not only do such breaks allow time for internships and work placements, but they also serve as much-needed respites from demanding university-courses. Overall, these length breaks arguably positively impact not only student mental-health but also our ability to engage in activities – whether that be projects, volunteer-work or more general career-development – outside of studies.

Yet in spite of the clear positive influence of a long winter vacation, it remains unclear whether students overarchingly prefer short and intense semesters with lengthy breaks to longer, calmer terms. While international studies have been unable to establish any correlation between hours spent at school or university and student performance, the education systems in many European countries are lengthening school days and university term dates so as to increase test-scores. Indeed, many universities go to great lengths to maximize student performance. For instance, British universities traditionally structure their terms such that students return from Christmas vacation shortly after New Year in order to sit their exams. Students are then often allowed a week or two off following their examinations. This system arguably provides students with more time to study for exams, which may result in better exam scores.

Yet in spite of the additional time to study for exams – or lack there-of, depending on one’s own willpower during Christmas – it is, amongst the student population at St Andrews, a widely unpopular structure. Overall, students much prefer to fully enjoy their winter breaks without the looming dread of exams. Indeed, the paradox of the St Andrews term times seems to lie in the wish of its students to be both longer and shorter simultaneously; a concurrent demand from students to profit more from the immense university tuition, but to nevertheless enjoy long respites from their studies.



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