'The length of the academic year is the hardest coconut from the highest tree'

‘A shorter academic year – yes, please!’

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With a workload filled with educational tasks, teachers don’t have time left for research, says art historian and faculty council member Annemieke Hoogenboom. She’s calling for fewer weeks of classes, and longer class-free periods. The Dutch academic year is too long.

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In May of last year, the Humanities Workload Committee published a report, by orders of the faculty board and the faculty council. The report contains 75 recommendations with which the workload of employees could be brought back to more humane proportions, and which would make the actual performance of those tasks a realistic goal. This academic year, the board of the faculty of Humanities has started to translate those recommendations into practice, going against cutbacks, and watched ever so closely by the faculty board.

Number 35 of the 75 recommendations, filed in the category ‘research’, reads: ‘Check whether we could change the academic calendar in such a way that we have a longer class-free period during summer’. A few months ago, the board was quoted as saying about this point: ‘This is impossible. It’s a UU decision, the faculty of Humanities cannot do this by itself, and the UU doesn’t want to do it.’ It remains rather vague whether the Humanities board would actually want to see the academic year change, even if the way it’s formulated doesn’t necessarily suggest the opposite. The remark that the UU doesn’t want to change the academic year should probably be read as: ‘The Executive Board doesn’t want that.’ But that doesn’t mean employees and students are happy about the current academic calendar. And of course – we don’t know what people at other universities feel about the topic.

‘The fragmentation of attention alone is a burden to research’

All Dutch universities started the 2017-2018 academic year on the first Monday of September. They will end the year in the last week of June, or the first week of July. With two weeks off around Christmas, that means the academic year in the entire country totals around forty weeks in principle. The way those forty weeks are then allocated differs per university, faculty, and even per study program.

At the UU’s Faculty of Humanities, the four educational blocks each last ten weeks, and classes are taught in seven weeks of each block. That doesn’t mean that in the other three weeks there’s room for revolutionary research – because those weeks, too, are claimed by educational tasks such as grading exams, giving feedback on projects, and preparing the classes of the next term. The fragmentation of attention alone is a burden to research, especially because research may require longer periods of uninterrupted concentration. Some teachers have a class-free block in some years. But even then, individual assignments, the aftermath of previously taught classes and the preparation of the coming classes, claim so much time and attention, that the production of academic articles that may dazzle the world seems rather overly optimistic.

‘We’re all doing research in our own time’

But even those who are inhumanly flexible and can produce complex thoughts in spare hours, will run out of available time. The Workload Committee gathered a large amount of documentation in preparation for the report, which shows again and again that the educational ambitious of the university are unfeasible and cause the direct sacrifice of research. One colleague provided the results of two years of keeping his hours, which led him to the conclusion that education and related coordinating and managing tasks cost him approximately 75 percent more time than what had been estimated. In practice, this was mostly the cause of the setup of new courses (exceeding the budget by 100 percent or more), but existing, repeating courses were also impossible to do within the nominal hours (exceeding the budget by around 30 percent).

Those who don’t track their hours recognize the situation, too. We’re all doing research in our own time, at night, in the weekends, and instead of going on vacation. In a meeting in January 2016 with the staff members in the faculty board, the dean acknowledged the situation, in literal terms that were put on record twice, but does not like to be reminded of.

‘Foreign universities have much longer class-free periods’

It’s hard to defend the fact that academic research is left to goodwill of housemates in private lives. It is, after all, one of the foundations of the university, and you can’t have academic education without high-quality research. The fact that research is nearly impossible to do for those who have a family, are caretakers, or simply want to reach their retirement age with a semblance of good health, doesn’t fit with the diversity the university says to strive towards. There are, then, several reasons to increase the practical possibilities of doing research, and to include the length of the academic year in this, without hesitation, without the fallacious argument of ‘things are the way they are’.

Many universities in other countries have much longer class-free periods than Dutch universities do. The 2017-2018 academic calendar at Harvard, for example, runs from August 30 to May 25, which a month-long Christmas break. That adds up to 35 weeks of research, with two long class-free periods. The calendars at New York University, Rutgers University and UCLA all amount to approximately 35 weeks. The Freie Universität Berlin and the Goethe Universität Frankfurt am Main have a Terminkalender that runs from April 18 to July 21, and from October 16 to February 17, with a one-week Christmas break, which amounts to only 31 weeks of education.

‘By shortening the academic year, we’ll be able to free up time’

In order to confidently state that Dutch universities have the longest academic year in the world, I’d have to do more research than the situation calls for. But the data above already justify the idea that we shouldn’t just accept the status quo. Are Dutch students so much less independent than German or American students? Can they, like their younger siblings in high school, not go without their teachers’ presence for more than a few weeks? Do those German students learn as much in thirty weeks as Dutch students do in forty, because they work harder and are more focused, or do they simply get less education?

Whatever the case may be, practice tells us that teachers are unable to safeguard their research time if it continuously needs to be defended throughout the entire, long, academic year, against the demands of education. In other words: we can’t give as much education as is currently being suggested, without having to sacrifice our research capacity. By shortening the academic year, we could more easily restrict our efforts at education to the level of ambition that’s realistic for the university, and free up time for the research that’s so vital to academic education.

Messing with the length of the academic year isn’t about low-hanging fruit. Quite the opposite: it’s the hardest coconut from the highest tree. The idea doesn’t just have to be approved by the Executive Board, it has to break through the VSNU fora, and it’ll most likely turn into a political issue. But if other countries are our examples, which is often the case, then they should be able to act as such in this case, too.

So let’s propose: four times nine weeks of classes.

 

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