6 months of University a year

Back in the day when I was young and the first in my family to own a cellphone, the University of Cape Town’s term was about a week and half longer either side of the year.

So you might say, who cares?

Well in a country with such a low matric pass rate and a high first year dropout rate, having such short University terms in which to complete work might not be such a good idea.

A few years ago, the middle of the year UCT holiday was extended from two or three weeks to six weeks. This allows lecturers longer research time. It also makes it easier for them to attend conferences when colleagues in the Northern hemisphere are on summer holidays. It benefits University staff especially those with high research burdens and journal articles to publish.

But students- many from disadvantaged backgrounds have to complete more work in less time. It adds more pressure and means students are expected to be good at meeting crazy deadlines and completing assignments at speed. For those who struggle or who have weaker English when they first enter University, the extreme time pressure is just another obstacle for them.

In 2009 the Wits student newspaper revealed that 50% of all first year engineering students fail.

I would think Universities would try to help as many students from previously disadvantaged schools get through without dropping out. Lengthening terms would make life a lot easier for them.  But terms are short and students sometimes have to hand in up to four assignments in a week. My brother, at UCT, just wrote three tests in one week. And another three the following week.

BTW when students fail first year, many repeat it the following year in another faculty adding to funding burdens and increasing the overcrowding so common at Universities.

Virgin’s entrepreneur extraordinaire Sir Richard Branson argues that University years can be a waste of time due to the lengthy holidays. Students get about 6 months of the year off in SA. And in the six months they do study, they cram in a whole syllabus. Seems ridiculous.

Back in my day things were better…

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About Kat child

I am a journalist (big smile: I love saying that) and a coffee lover. I believe journalism should tell untold stories and give a voice to the voiceless. I love Cape Town, the beach, cheese, chocolate and Origin's cappucinos. I don't see the point of making one's bed and I wear odd socks.
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One Response to 6 months of University a year

  1. John Child says:

    I fully agree. I’ve also been thinking about the problem though from the other side. If one can do a year in 6 months then why not do 3 years in two? Or 4 in 3 or 2 1/2 & save money? There is room for universities to offer a greater variety of packages. I’m surprised they’re not doing that already. Some probably are.

    But you are right. In a country where the matric pass is so low – & it should be far lower as the pass mark is ridiculously low – students need more time to acquire maths, science & writing skills. They should be at university around 10 months a year not six. Studying is their job; which employee works less than 11 months a year?

    But what of the need for research? The need is great if South Africa is going to have world class universities & not fall way behind the rest of the developed world. 6 weeks break in the middle of the year makes no sense for students though it does for lecturer’s who do research. Professors & lecturers must do research & that cannot be done without a sufficient break from teaching & going to overseas conferences. There too is a financial incentive for the university: they receive R128 000 from the government for every Journal article published in a refereed Journal & R640 00 for every book published. That’s good money.

    So one needs a solution that is good for bright students, average students & those without adequate academic skills but who supposedly have the potential, and that encourages lecturers to continue with research. One solution is to make a greater distinction between teaching lecturers and research lecturers; all need to teach & all must do research but some can specialize in teaching & take a significant teaching load & others can spend most of their time in research & publishing. That way the best teachers teach & assist the first & second years & help get them through legitimately without dropping standards while the best researchers teach less & when they do then focus on the senior students, especially postgraduates.

    A 10 month teaching year won’t be appreciated by lecturers used to so little teaching. One way out is for all lecturers to be given one term off teaching each year. One then will have about a 3-4 months break, 10 weeks term plus a 1 week mid-semester break & the winter or summer vac at the end or beginning. That is more than adequate. Lecturers too get 6 month sabbaticals, sometimes longer.

    One may need slightly more lecturing staff if one implements the above. This could be covered by the improvement in the student pass rate. To my knowledge the government pays the universities for students who pass. So a greater pass rate will bring in more money & that can be used to employ more academics, meaning more teachers & more researchers. And more teachers should further improve the pass rate & more researchers improve the universities’ ratings.

    If UCT (& others) wants a 6 week winter teaching break in imitation of northern hemisphere universities then they should think of cutting their summer break in imitation of those same universities. You can’t have a nearly 3 month summer break plus a 6 week winter break.

    This is a debate that needs to get into the public sphere. We need innovation & dedication if we are going to turn our university education around & produce the graduates our country desperately needs.

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