Trimesters: the next attempt to milk the cash cow dry

Trimesters: the next attempt to milk the cash cow dry

In July, David Elliott reflected on the drawbacks of trimesters, after the University of Adelaide announced it was considering making the change.

Following the implementation of trimesters at UNSW, our University quietly announced during the exam period it too was looking into implementing a trimester model. This would see the majority of courses condensed from 13 weeks to 10, a reduction of summer and winter holiday periods and the loss of mid-semester breaks. Having taken part myself in the recent student protests at UNSW calling to end this model, it’s clear students are dissatisfied with how it has affected their lives and learning.

The arguments for trimesters have centred upon ‘accelerated’ degrees, cramming three-year programs into two, fast-tracking entry to the workforce. In an increasingly mobile, global and dynamic labour market, this sounds great for someone eager to get their dream job. However, there’s a lot of reasons why students should be seriously concerned about trimesters.

Slashed Federal funding under successive Labor and Liberal governments, coupled with the Liberals aggressive agenda of deregulation and market-orientation have transformed our universities into little more than businesses with an incidental, reluctant obligation to educate.

We’ve seen no indication that decreased course duration equates to cost efficiencies and lower fees, meaning students could potentially be required to pay three annual student services and amenities fees (SSAF) instead of two, and three rounds of course fees per year. Where students don’t qualify for HECS or are already dissuaded by costs, there are potential increased financial barriers to university, especially international and lower SES students, and people with existing financial obligations.

The loss of time outside of study is an important factor influencing student welfare and poverty. The University’s own 2016 student welfare figures showed one in seven (~1900) students regularly skip meals in order to afford their tuition and life expenses. This is despite 85% of students working casual, part-time or full-time jobs alongside their studies. In an economic climate of stagnant wage growth, decades-long freezes on welfare payment rates, attacks on penalty rates and increasing casualisation, trimesters stand to exacerbate extant financial pressures; simultaneously requiring students to conduct more paid work whilst also taking time from them to do so. Adopting trimesters would demonstrate outright apathy for student welfare.

According to the University’s own statistics, there has been a net loss of 36 research staff and 32 teaching staff since 2014 with overall annual downward trends. There is little indication trimesters will avail more positions or funding to cope with the increased workload and tempo, especially considering the increasing rates of staff casualisation and departmental budget cuts reducing the capacity to employ tutors and markers. While this will inevitably be experienced differently across the faculties and departments, students will likely receive less (if any) feedback and coaching to improve. We run the risk of becoming nothing more than a tired, uncritical degree factory.

Meanwhile, staff themselves are unlikely to receive (meaningful) pay rises for their increased workload and will additionally lose time to conduct their own research, which contributes to an increasing proportion of the University’s revenue ($181.6 million in 2018).

Trimesters unequivocally are a business model, not a learning model. The move towards condensed course content, and reduced study and work time is symptomatic of a failing corporate university system desperate to cut costs and wring students and staff dry without addressing the source of their financial woes. Unsurprisingly, the University has decided not to consult students on implementing trimesters and we as yet don’t know how students’ concerns will be side-stepped this time.

As one of a shrinking number of Australian Vice Chancellors from an academic background, VC Peter Rathjen — for once — needs to show some real leadership and use the Group of Eight platform to pressure the Government for increased funding and a better deal for students and educators. Go earn your million-dollar pay cheque.

David Elliott sits on the Geography and Development Society committee. He is undertaking a Bachelor of Arts (Geography, Environment and Population) (Honours) and holds a Bachelor of Social Sciences.

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