Monday, 22 December 2014

Seasonal thoughts

For someone who has worked in and with universities for all of their adult life, I have a real difficulty in counting academic years. If I’m told that someone started their three-year degree in 2012, I have to use my fingers to work out when they’ll graduate (July 2015, just to show that I can do this). The UK academic year doesn’t match any of the other ancient years – it isn’t related to quarter days, it doesn’t tie in with tax and government budget years; there’s no connection with the change from Julian to Gregorian calendars.

The roots seem to be more practical – the year starts after harvest. The picture I have in my head is much like Bruegel painted, with jolly/oppressed (take your pick, really) villagers bringing in the harvest, as a literal matter of life and death. Once the harvest was in the bag, other things could take place. And hence the UK academic year which starts in September/October.

This (and legacy of imperialism) seems a plausible explanation for most countries' term dates – in the Southern hemisphere, January/February starts are usual; in the Northern, September/October are the norm. But there are interesting exceptions – Japan and Pakistan begin in April, Finland in July. Russia starts in September with the wonderful Knowledge Day.

In the UK an autumn start is not universal. Several universities allow a February start (within the contact of a September norm) and the University of Buckingham, which as an entirely privately funded university sits outside of many mainstream UK practices, starts with the calendar year.

The harvest is no longer an overwhelming part of everybody’s calendar in the UK. Not many of us have actually reaped what we’re sown (at least not literally); and less than 1% of UK workers are in the agriculture and fishing industries. So does it make sense to start in September? Christmas and Easter holidays are awkward for a semester system, and a different start time could make it easier to schedule teaching, and therefore supportive of better learning. A different start to the year could also allow for post-qualification admissions to become a reality, which would help with widening participation and remove the lottery of clearing.

But be warned – it isn’t something that can be done by one institution acting alone, as Tokyo University found out in 2013:
Speaking after a meeting of the presidents of national universities on Wednesday, Todai [Tokyo University] President Junichi Hamada said there were too many hurdles to overcome and that shifting the start of the academic year could not be done by one institution alone, but required a change in Japan’s education system.
So the only rational answer is for everyone to help with the harvest, as before, and come back to university in September with a real appreciation of the opportunity to learn in comfort.

Season’s Greetings to you all!

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