Semesters, Trimesters or Blocks, or all of them?

Posted: 29/05/2023
by: Ian Thomson

Here at DVE we recently ran a webinar that asked questions about the most appropriate term structure to support student flexibility for an Australian university.

I was honoured to be joined by Professor John Germov, DVC(HE) from Victoria University (home of the 4-week block model); Professor Karen Nelson, Provost at University of Southern Queensland (who has just introduced 6-week blocks to run alongside Semesters, Full-Year and 4-week intensives); and Professor Romy Lawson, DVC(Students) at Flinders University (who run a traditional Semester model but have some discipline areas trialling alternatives).

It was immediately clear that the answer to the question on the best term structure is “it depends” and that, probably unsurprisingly, there isn’t a single solution that is right for everyone.
However, our panel provided some very strong lessons that everyone could take away and I have summarised these for you below:

  1. Know the reasons why you are making a change? It was very clear that there may be multiple reasons for wanting to change. Knowing why it is right for your institution is about clearly defining why you want the new model – is it student flexibility? Or finances? Or entry points? Or more flexible timetable? Being able to articulate the reason for change is critical to take staff and students on the journey.
  2. Socialise and discuss the concept early and at length. Take the time to discuss the concept as broadly as possible. Traditional processes might include an ideas paper with many options, (including a market analysis); followed by a discussion paper that brings it down to a couple of suitable options; followed by a business case that shows the viability of a chosen option; followed finally by an implementation plan with details of what needs to be done. At this point you can start.
  3. Don’t try to make the change and convince people at the same time. Both staff and students will need to buy into the change and getting champions on board across the whole institution is critical. This is not a process where you can design the plane as you’re flying it – you need to socialise, share, and convince before you start.
  4. Recognise you can’t separate the student experience from the institution’s finance – they are inseparable. For most Australian institutions student-based income will be more than half of total income. As such movement in student enrolment immediately and significantly impacts the finances. Although your reason for change may be improved student flexibility or more starting options, you need to understand the financial impacts – positive or negative – that accompany this.
  5. Recognise there is not a single answer. The model you eventually settle on will depend on your reason for change, the type of students you have and want to attract, and quite possibly, the level of bravery your leadership team are prepared to accept. It is quite likely you will have a hybrid model. There is no reason that UG and PG need to have the same term structure. Depending on your course profile you may be more or less dependent on external bodies for placements. There are many comparisons. Here are a number of structures in place around the world.Semesters Trimesters or Blocks or all of them image
  6. Have a strong focus on entry points. In this fast-paced world there two major criticisms of the Semester model. First is the “hurry up and wait” entry process that sees a student interested in study in August being told to wait almost 8 months until March the following year before they can start (see point 7). Second is that whilst Semesters might still be okay for school leavers studying full-time, universities now have many adult learners who are balancing work and home life. Completing an undergraduate degree part-time – one subject at a time – may take 12 years to complete in the Semester model, assuming no fails or breaks. No-one signs up for that.
  7. Avoid your Kodak moment – Recognise your comparison point may not be other Australian universities. If you compare yourselves to similar Australian universities, you may not see the need for change. But question how many northern hemisphere students may see Australia as an option over the US, Canada or UK if there was a realistic September start time. And given the growth in preference for online study and an increasing employer focus on relevant skills over full degrees in many disciplines, the “immediate-start, study at your own pace” online options offer a realistic alternative to university. Consider the creation and growth in providers such as Coursera, edX, Udemy, Khan Academy, Udacity, Pluralsight, LinkedIn Learning, Seek Learning, and Google Learning.
  8. Recognise a change like this will affect every part of the institution and support is needed from every level of leadership. The change of terms should be part of a broader change to drive student experience in your institution. Complementary changes could look at curriculum re-design; pedagogy; assessment; facilities design; and timetabling. More terms mean less time between terms, so it impacts admissions, enrolment, finance, IT, placements, WIL, resulting, and completions. As mentioned before, this is an opportunity to look at process improvement to ensure you are doing things the most efficient way for both staff and students. To achieve this, you will need support from all levels in the organisation.
  9. Acknowledge workloads for academic and professional staff and that institution-wide change is going to have a significant impact on people. University teams are already reasonably stressed after years of structural change, the pandemic, and budget realignments. This needs to be acknowledged and delivering a change like this cannot be done alongside business as usual. It will take a dedicated and resourced team to deliver the change.
  10. Take the time to improve business and administrative processes (and associated technology if you can) before you make the change. I can’t stress enough that trying to drive significant change without improving basic processes will be fraught with problems. Take the time to simplify and streamline student and staff processes. Where additional IT investment can be afforded, systems should also be improved. However, putting a poor process into a new system will not deliver the change you want. Fix the process first.

If you want to, you can view a recording of the webinar here and stay up to date with DVE’s regular webinar series here.