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University plans major changes to course structures

An anonymous source within the University has revealed that major changes are planned for the 2022/2023 academic year

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Nouse has been informed by an anonymous source within the University that important changes to how all its courses are structured will come into effect as of the 2022/2023 academic year. The first change will see modules across all departments standardised to be worth 20 credits each, in a move the University brands ‘modularisation’. The second change will see the structure of the academic year change from three terms to two semesters, a process the University terms ‘semesterisation’.

The University claims that both staff and students have expressed dissatisfaction with the current system, and “welcome the opportunity to help shape a new and improved system”. When Nouse asked the University how students and staff had responded to these proposed changes, they told us that:

“Staff have expressed a need to have a more balanced workload over the academic year and more time for research over the summer – something the proposed changes will help to achieve. Students are also in favour of a better balance to the academic year in terms of work, assessments and exams. They have expressed a desire to be able to study across disciplines and take advantage of international opportunities as well as summer jobs and internships – some feel they can currently miss out on due to a later finish to the term.  Staff and students have said they would like more detail on what the year might look like and this will be covered in the next round of consultation.”

Nouse discussed these proposed changes with YUSU academic officer, Matt Johnstone, who agreed that the current term structure is not working effectively. “Students can currently experience anywhere between 16 and 25 weeks of teaching per year, depending on whether they have reading weeks or get taught after Easter. We all pay the same, so why do some of us get more out of their year than others?

This is something that a restructuring like semesterisation could fix, but it has to be “done right”. However, he pointed out that the change is a risky one as there are “chaotic examples” from other universities where a semester system “just hasn’t worked”.

He had a less optimistic outlook on modularisation. “Choice and flexibility are being traded for ‘interdisciplinarity’, but the truth is that these changes would absolutely destroy Natural Sciences for example – a department (technically a school) built on interdisciplinary study,” he said. “Get to choose half a dozen ten-credit modules in your third year? Under this change, you’d get to choose three instead.”

“Besides the policy itself, the amount of extra work that staff will have to put in to redesign courses while they're already exhausted from Covid will further affect the quality of teaching.”

We also asked an anonymous department representative for their outlook on the changes, and they pointed out that modularisation may “allow students to take relevant modules in other departments much more easily than they can currently”.

More controversially, Johnstone claims that he was not properly consulted on the changes and that the staff and student consultation for the planned changes was inadequate. “Myself and a Sabb from the GSA were included in a ‘Task and Finish Group’ – Uni slang for making something work. The changes were already a done deal by this point, but it didn't matter because our input was ignored. We lobbied constantly for proper student consultation, but we were told there wasn't time before the changes were due in the Senate.”

He went on to say that “All staff were ‘consulted’, but many of those staff members who were actually aware it was happening were dismayed at the state of it. The consultation consisted of a questionnaire and a couple of webinars, with a total engagement of 300 staff members. Several staff described the questionnaire as ‘biased’.”

Our anonymous department representative backed this up, revealing that they were not consulted on these major changes to the curriculum. “We had strategy meetings with the university and it has been raised in Department Teaching Committee meetings, but by that point, the decision was essentially made.”

We asked the University whether they believed there had been adequate consultation for the planned changes, and they responded that they had undertaken “a thorough and in-depth consultation on the planned changes. This has included staff working groups to discuss and make recommendations on proposals, staff webinars with Q&As, online surveys and discussions with senior leadership. We have also consulted student, faculty and departmental representatives through online focus group sessions.”

The University also revealed that a final decision on whether to adopt the changes will be made at the Senate on 25 November, and that students will be represented at the meeting via the YUSU and GSA members of the Senate. If the Senate decides to adopt the proposals, consultation will continue.

Between 20 December 2020 and 20 May 2021, students and staff will be given the opportunity to offer their views on semesterisation and help to shape a new pattern for the academic year. Furthermore, consultation on modularisation will continue during staff/student forms, therefore “allowing for input from students at all possible levels”.

A University spokesperson said: “The University has undertaken the first stage of a thorough and in-depth consultation on the proposed changes to introduce a common structure for the academic year, and a common value for our modules. The University has received positive feedback on the plans so far and the consultation process is ongoing, allowing for input from students and staff at every possible level.

“We are committed to ensuring that we arrive at improvements to our teaching organisation that are right for York. We are grateful to staff and students who have provided feedback so far and encourage as many members of our community as possible to engage in the changes that will allow us to realise the new Vision for York.”

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