(The views expressed in this article are not necessarily reflective of LawSoc – this is an anonymous, independent opinion piece)
On Friday morning, Professor Merlin Crossley emailed students and staff, reasserting that the new academic calendar will offer:
“Greater flexibility to spread … study load over the year;
The ability to focus more on each course (since we will move from 4 per semester to up to 3 courses per term);
More opportunities for embedding internships, volunteering and other activities into the UNSW experience;
Better alignment with international university calendars, facilitating more global experiences;
A more vibrant campus life through more consistent use of facilities across the year”
As students, especially when dealing with an issue as important as this one, it is important to question the information we’re given. Often we find that as we delve deeper into what’s presented to us, especially information that may be particularly vague or ambiguous, analysing it systematically can help provide some clarity.
So, we’ll attempt to understand how the trimester model will realise these articulated goals.
Welcome to The Blog’s first fact check.
Illustration by Leonie Leclerc
“A normal study load remains at 8 courses a year and a full-time study load is 6 courses spread over three terms. Centrelink payments and visa requirements will not change” the email reads.
Whilst a full-time load will still be 6 courses, students will be required by legislation to attend all three trimesters. This means they could do 3 courses in trimester 1, 2 in trimester 2 and 1 in trimester 3, but they still have to attend every trimester.
Start-up scholarships for those on Centrelink will also ‘not change,’ but that is not a good thing. They won’t be adapted to the trimester model, meaning students will not get their scholarship for trimester 2.
The SRC warns “If anyone relies on their advice and only does trimester 1 and 3 with 3 courses expecting to get Centrelink, and then has to repay it at the end of the year, they’re going to be devastated.”
The trimester model will have an impact on students who are on Centrelink. It’s important that these students are aware of what these changes will be, so they can cater their studies accordingly. The prospect that a student might be unable to buy textbooks in the second trimester, as brought to our attention by an SRC representative, is extremely worrying.
The email states: “Education quality will not be reduced. Teaching up to 3 courses in 10 weeks actually provides more time for each course than 4 courses in 12 weeks. Additionally, the entire curriculum will be reviewed…. to improve, upgrade and modernise the education on offer at UNSW”
This is one difficult to fact check, considering that there has been little to no explanation on how the university is actually planning to make this happen. This means that either they are unwilling to release their plans, or they don’t have a plan, and as such their claims are unsubstantiated.
In the current semester model, lecturers often comment how there isn’t enough time to fit course material in a 12 week period. It would be interesting to know how the University plans on condensing courses such as Contracts or Torts that have a set amount of content to cover, into a shorter period of time. Whilst we look forward to knowing what the university has planned (or is trying to plan), we are healthily sceptical.
The email stated that the trimester model will “provide opportunities for staff who would like to dedicate themselves more fully to teaching, with obvious benefits for both those staff and their students.”
What are these “obvious benefits”?
The NTEU newsletter notes the problem that “there has been no pedagogical argument provided as to how the changes will improve the quality of education delivery at UNSW.” The NTEU newsletter comments that the education-focused roles the University wants to introduce will lead to;
“reduction of educational content;
fewer leading researchers fronting classrooms…;
less time for student absorption of material and reflection;
fewer… assessment tasks;
damaging curriculum revision and rushed content delivery;
poorer course alignment with accreditation requirements;
increased workload and tighter turn around times for staff;
rushed and more generic computer-generated student feedback [and] greater risks to the physical and emotional wellbeing of staff and students”
When we went to the rally, staff commented that the trimester model would greatly impact on their ability to attend academic conferences and further educate themselves, as these conferences are typically held in June and July.
Whilst of course, staff being able to better dedicate themselves to teaching and learning lends to greater educational quality, however the way in which the trimester model allows staff to do this is not clear. The statement is therefore confusing, and ought to be re-expressed by the University in terms that are less ambiguous.
“One major advantage of the calendar is that students will be able to free up time for internships, volunteering and research placements without delaying graduation”
A confusing one. The trimester model will actually reduce access to summer clerkships and internships as the academic year will finish later, reducing the alignment with internships. Another problem is that we won’t be considered full-time students if we take a term off to complete an internship.
We’d like more clarification from the University on how the calendar frees up time for internships. This is extremely important. The penultimate year clerkships are both a rite of passage for young aspiring lawyers, and invaluable in securing a graduate job. Who knows, maybe the law firms value UNSW enough to change the rules for us, but maybe we’ll get left behind as USyd, UTS and Macquarie have students who have more accommodating academic calendars.
“Throughout 2016, we engaged with students through reference groups, meetings with student representative groups, surveys and an open student forum…” the email reads.
In an article published by Tharunka, William Berthelot cites “Over 90% of responses were critical of the trimester change; the most common criticism concerned the university’s lack of transparency and its failure to meaningfully consult students.”
In an article published by The Australian, Dr Sarah Gregson, branch leader of the NTEU reiterates this; “They [the university] are pushing ahead with this, despite widespread staff and student opposition and a failure to meaningfully answer concerns about workload, equity and learning quality,” Dr Gregson said.
Student and staff sentiment towards this lack of consultation is perhaps best observed in a meme posted on the same day as the trimester email:
It is clear that the debate surrounding this issue is contentious and heated, there are huge and vested interests involved. Regardless of whether there has been meaningful student consultation, the lack of transparency is worrying. There are genuine anxieties surrounding this decision, and greater comment from the University should be given.
The email states, “The move to having up to 3 rather than 4 courses per term and the flexibility to reduce load during high pressure periods should enable students to better manage stress and mental health.”
When we went to the rally and spoke with students, many of them felt worried that even though the UNSW3+ model means less courses, the shorter period of time and level of content has the potential to exacerbate rather than mitigate stress levels.
Additionally, the model does not allow for mid-semester breaks, the summer break has been cut short by four weeks and the breaks in-between terms are just two weeks instead of four. For law students, there is no reading week. This time is often vital for helping students get on top of their work, and also helping students unwind and relax in between terms.
Going back to the point made about Centrelink, students who are on Centrelink will be forced to study each trimester, which in effect nullifies the “flexibility” promised by the changes. This could exacerbate the challenges faced by students on Centrelink, and potentiate mental health problems.
The mental health of students is not something to mess around with, or nullify with vagaries that ultimately cannot be substantiated. Again, this is something we need to have an answer on, especially for law students who are disproportionately affected (46.9% of law students reported suffering from depression according to a study done by the Law Society).
“The calendar will not in itself generate revenue… fees will not be increased… As a not-for-profit organisation UNSW re-invests revenues back in education and research…” the email states.
The extra teaching period will generate revenue for the University, along with increased enrolment streams. The SRC commented that the model could “potentially increase more lucrative contracts of lease with businesses on campus and also potentially increase the bonuses of Uni executives who receive bonuses as a result of surplus targets.” They did acknowledge that these are only potential outcomes of the trimester model, but they sure seem possible.
We don’t actually know 100% what the impacts of the trimester model will be on the revenue generated by the University. Only time will tell – but let’s face it, it is looking like the most likely outcome. (They got dollas but no cents.)
The email states: “There has been a suggestion that the move to a new calendar will be associated with staff cuts. This is not the case. In fact, expanding the university’s offerings will allow us to create more jobs.”
After contacting the SRC, they told us that around 400 staff will be cut and “millions of dollars have been set aside as part of the 2025 strategy.”
“Some [staff] have already been told in the last week that they will be let go” they said.
The Campus Morning Mail quoted Dylan Lloyd on this issue “The timetable restructure goes hand in hand with potentially hundreds of staff redundancies, faculty restructures and of course cuts”
“The University has allegedly budgeted $30 million for redundancies, which “translates to 400 people” Dylan said.
Whilst it is not 100% clear to what extent the trimester change could lead to staff cuts and redundancies, the University is failing to articulate exactly how the trimester model will create more jobs.
This ambiguity, is of course, problematic.
At this point we want to say that we eagerly await the day that we apologise for doubting the UNSW3+ model and realise that we were wrong. Or maybe we chuckle at the University’s “indefinite postponement” of its implementation (LOL). But we do feel that the University’s clear unwillingness to participate in meaningful debate on these issues with staff and students is cause for concern. This is the key reason why we conducted The Blog’s inaugural fact check – to encourage discussion, keep the debate alive, and hopefully – inspire real answers.