I know what I’m doing this summer…

I understand that former Education minister Lord Adonis has criticised the ‘ridiculously long vacations‘ of the University sector.  Thanks to Small Casserole for pointing this out and making some very good points (sorry Ian, seems strange using your *real* name…).  Lord Adonis is quoted as stating that private universities may offer an advantage because they allow students to study full time as opposed to the full time for 2/3 of the year and a long vacation model that currently exists.

He said that there could be merit in “just abandoning these ridiculously long vacations … That only really makes sense as far as I can see if you want to travel the world or you need to get a job”

There are two ways in which I could argue against this idea.

Firstly, from a student perspective.  Our students do 8 modules per year, 4 per semester and have a vacation of roughly 4 months over the summer.  By the end of the second semester in May they are pretty worked out.  Studying, done properly, is seriously intense, hard work.  I have yet to meet a student who would excel in a trimester system, being able to maintain the level of performance necessary for a first class degree classification.  The summer is a pretty critical time – it allows students to take a break and do something else for a while.  They can process what’s happened over the semester both in terms of study and in terms of their personal lives.  University is intense.

Yes, some students chose to travel in these vacations and they are the lucky ones that can afford it.  An increasing majority, particularly those who chose not to work during term time because they want to focus on their studies, do need the summer to work.  The statement ‘or you need to get a job’ flies in the face of all widening access debates – yes they do need to find jobs actually.  For many that is the difference between working 6 hours a week during semester, or working 15+ hours a week.  And you can bet working hard to pay rent/eat  reflects on assessment performance.  Its also an opportunity to gain experience beyond the lecture theatre: research placements, internships, building up a CV with interesting and varied experience.  Yes, even shelf stacking in a supermarket develops skills that degrees can’t.

Secondly, from my perspective as an academic. I’m tired by May and I need a change of pace from the frenetically timetabled semester time.  I have to teach in July so I don’t really get to hang up my teaching brain for the summer, but that’s not common.  What do I need the summer vacation for?  Well, its not a vacation, its still work.  June is usually spent catching up on research, tidying up various projects from the semester (such as evaluating teaching projects, modules, final year research projects).  July as I mentioned I teach a bit, so I can’t go away for 2 weeks then.  This year I have two summer students in July and August, yes, two students between 2nd and 3rd year are going to be doing research for 8 weeks, for less money than they would earn working similar hours else where. They’re doing it for the experience as much as anything.  August I’m off to SciFoo, but will mainly be working on research projects with students and the end of August/September is teaching prep time.  I don’t have time in my timetable in October and November to do things ‘on the fly’, so generally have to have everything sorted before the clock strikes semester.

Am I alone in a busy summer?  No, all over my institution people are writing manuscripts for publications (REF is coming up, you know?), going to conferences, applying for funding, serving on committees to improve the student experience, developing a new virtual learning environment, working out how better to prepare our students for life after graduation, preparing for A-level results day and subsequent clearing, working out how to recruit in a higher fees environment, and much, much more.

So it isn’t a ridiculously long vacation, it is a much needed change of pace for everyone involved.  Like the 2 year degree idea, this makes no concessions to the actual cognitive demands that studying at university level places on students and staff.  A change is, after all, as good as a rest.


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