How Smart is a Shorter Academic Year?

Would a shorter academic year also be a smarter academic year? Nicolai Manie and Maike Hulsbos, education consultants at Turner, raise doubts about this. Without a thorough revision of the organization of programs, a shorter academic year will only increase workload, they say.

Is a shorter academic year also a smarter academic year?

Turner provides its clients with timely, new, and relevant insights for their markets and the strategy execution issues they face. In this article, Nicolai Manie and Maike Hulsbos, education consultants at Turner, delve into the impact of a smarter academic year and its implications for strategy execution.

Workload at universities is high, so the academic world is seeking solutions.
Workload at universities is high. In 2020, research by the predecessor of UNL, VSNU, showed that 72 percent of academic staff at Dutch universities experience a lot to very high workload. This is mainly due to the imbalance between the number of teachers and students and a shortage of permanent scientific staff. Compared to surrounding countries, the Netherlands also has a relatively long academic year. The exact duration varies per university, ranging from 36 to 44 weeks.

The workload mainly affects teachers who have both teaching and research duties. They are evaluated on both: they must give lectures and publish research, sometimes also taking on managerial tasks. This demands a complex balancing act from teachers: some are so busy with teaching that they are forced to use the summer, when they should be off, for their research. Thus, the academic year may be even fuller than the cold numbers suggest.

One of the solutions currently being discussed is a smarter academic year. At present, it seems to be the holy grail for reducing workload. In 2020, De Jonge Akademie – an independent part of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences – published an opinion article in the newspaper Trouw, titled ‘Reduce workload at universities with a shorter academic year.’ In 2021, De Jonge Akademie further substantiated this claim with a report titled A Smarter Academic Year.

A “smarter academic year,” or a shorter academic year, is presented as the holy grail.
A shorter academic year to reduce workload sounds appealing. But is it? To answer this question properly, it is necessary to first unravel the issue. What exactly are we talking about when shortening the year?

Consider: if we have an academic year of 40 weeks and we cut off a month, you end up with a situation where you have to eliminate blocks that previously ran continuously or shorten them. What used to be done in forty weeks must now be done in thirty-six weeks. But can you simply use the cheese slicer? Compare the situation to that of a car factory: if you reduce ten percent of the work time, ultimately fewer cars will be built. It will undoubtedly play out differently at universities, but the principle is the same.

If ten percent of the available time is cut, university lecturers will be in a bind. They will have less time for the material they normally cover in their lectures, while still having to prepare and grade tests and resits. The result is an increase in workload rather than a decrease. Is the solution then to hire more people? That is not the first thing that comes to mind when discussing a smarter academic year.

The consequences for students will also be significant. Currently, a study year for a student typically consists of 60 ECTS (European Credit Transfer System) credits, equivalent to 1680 study hours. If ten percent of the study hours are cut, students will have to earn their credits in a shorter time. Moreover, there will be adjustments to the existing rhythm. Students generally do not object to a longer summer vacation, but at the same time, they are attached to breaks between different blocks. If they receive continuous education, followed by an exam period, and immediately move on to the next block, stress will visibly increase. They need a period to catch their breath and relax.

The conclusion after unraveling the issue can hardly be otherwise than that administrators are faced with a false dilemma.

A shorter academic year only increases workload. At least: if the workload distribution is not simultaneously adjusted.
Before university administrators embrace the idea of a smarter, shorter academic year, they should first zoom out and investigate what is really going on. A shorter academic year sounds great, but it is not a goal in itself. It is a means. The goal is to reduce workload. A smarter academic year can only be achieved if not only the duration knob is adjusted but if all other aspects are also taken into account simultaneously. This includes adjusting the workload distribution. When you subtract four weeks from a curriculum of forty weeks, the number of tasks must also be reduced. This is no easy task: faculties rely on years of experience in the organization of the academic year. Much thought has been given to what knowledge and skills need to be conveyed within a certain time frame. How do you reduce the course content by ten percent? Or how do you repackage current course material so that it can be delivered in 10% less time? This requires a redesign of programs. And that takes time.

Of course, university lecturers and scientific staff have lost hours. There are also differences between the workloads of different staff members. At one faculty, grading an exam might take two and a half hours, while at another faculty, grading a similar exam might take only an hour and a half. There is undoubtedly room for improvement. But that is separate from the problem that a shorter academic year is not a smarter academic year.

Developing and executing a good strategy to truly reduce workload.
If we really want to reduce workload at universities, we need to delve deeper into the issue. We have spoken to more than a hundred people about their ideas, and we have a fairly clear picture of what to expect if the academic year will indeed be redesigned. Once you start making changes, it will affect all other components of the academic year. It is already difficult for most students to take a course outside their own program due to the unequal start and end times of blocks. What happens if faculties redesign their own curricula without considering the trend of increasing student mobility? With the desire for more flexibility and interdisciplinary education, it seems essential for faculties to coordinate to arrive at a more harmonious scheduling of the academic year together.

For a truly smarter academic year, you will need to set many things in motion, and in the right order. It requires quite a bit to implement such an idea. It will not be achieved in a few months. This requires courage from university administrators. They will really need to develop a strategy and then execute it cleverly. Initially, it may even lead to higher workload because all university lecturers and other stakeholders need to provide input on how the curriculum can be redesigned. If all conditions are met, however, we have every confidence that the result will ultimately lead to the much-desired reduction in workload.

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