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“Unhappy” Johnstone calls out lack of “student consultation” ahead of new semesterisation policy

Alanah Hammond interviews current YUSU Academic Officer, Matt Johnstone, about the university’s academic plans

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The University of York is moving to the new policies of “semesterisation” and “modularisation” in the academic year 2023/2024 (the year after next). Nouse interviewed YUSU’s Academic Officer, Matt Johnstone, who expressed his concerns over the new academic policies.

Currently, at the University of York, the academic year is split into three ten-week terms: Autumn, Spring, and Summer. Plans have now been approved to change this to two 16-week semesters, a process called “semesterisation”. Alongside this, the University is also introducing “modularisation”which is where every module will be standardised to 20 credits, although there may be some exceptions.

Johnstone told Nouse of his concerns, stating: “Staff are already exhausted after Covid, [and] have been overworked for years, so it’s unrealistic to expect them to have the capacity to work on such significant changes.”Johnstone explained how there was a distinct lack of student input in the plans, and so he “remain[s] unhappy about the level of student consultation prior to the change programme being given the go-ahead”.

The Academic Officer explained how the original plans of semesterisation and modularisation started in Autumn 2019, describing them as Vice-Chancellor Charlie Jeffery’s “big change when coming to York university”. Johnstone described how preliminary work on Jeffery’s idea started in early 2020 but was “shelved when Covid started”. Plans restarted in August 2020, in Johnstone’s second month in his new role as YUSU Academic Officer, where after a small staff consultation, the proposal went to Senate – the highest academic decision-making body in the University.

At Senate, Johnstone explained how the “meeting was adjourned because of disagreements and time constraints” and that it was “only after about one hour and 30 minutes in the reconvened Senate meeting that people agreed to the new plans”.

Johnstone explained how “technically, on paper, there was input from students” via the students’ union and YUSU being present at some meetings. However, even in the latter Johnstone told Nouse that there were only two sabbatical officers (himself from YUSU and a colleague from the GSA) amongst 20 individuals.

In spite of Johnstone’s “unhappy” feelings towards the new policies, the Academic Officer explained: “YUSU has since worked with University colleagues to develop the practical aspects of Modularisation and Semesterisation”. In such “practical aspects” of the new policies, Johnstone told Nouse of semesterisations benefits. In one semester, there will be a one-week introduction/ post-exam break as well as 11 weeks of teaching and then four weeks for revision and assessments (however, there maybe some exceptions between courses). Johnstone explained how this will create a “moveable break between terms to account for the majority of Easter school holidays” and “lessen the need to study over the holidays by not having deadlines straight after vacation periods”. Johnstone also described the current third term at York as being “useless in some departments” and so there are clearly some benefits to this new policy.

The University of York claims that semesterisation will “help balance workload across the year”, and, by aligning with other academic institutions, opportunities to study abroad will become easier. They also explained how the “most obvious change” will be through the start and end dates of the academic year as well as the timings of vacations and breaks. Semester One will now start earlier than the current Autumn Term, and the undergraduate summer vacation (and postgraduate summer teach-ing period) will start earlier too

The University explained that “a vacation in each Semester gives you two or three weeks away from your studies to revise and relax”. They added: “Changes to the structure of the year are likely to have some impact on the amount of time you spend in classes each week”. This means that students may see alterations to end of module assessments, for example longer or shorter exams and essays, or changes to the type of assessment used.

Through modularisation, the University of York also described how module options may expand in range and number of choices. However, they guaranteed that students would still be able to “tailor” their course.

Johnstone remains “not convinced” by what modularisation “sets out to achieve”. He described how “in the 2019/2020 academic year, there were over 3,000 modules. 1,629 were 20 credits whereas 770 were ten credits. The remaining modules ranged from five credits to 120 credits”. This means that “around 47 percent of modules” will have to be reworked, which increased Johnstone’s anxieties over staff workload, especially with ongoing poor industrial relations between staff and the University.

Despite a lack of “student consultation” and Johnstone’s concerns, the plans are going ahead. In his final words to
Nouse, Johnstone described how the new policies of semesterisation and modularisation have been a “very demoralising thing to be defeated by” and how this defeat “dominated [his] first half of [his] first year in office”.

Johnstone only “hope[s] [that] the University will continue to engage with us and the student body as the final details are decided over the next year, as well as throughout the implementation process”.

A University of York spokesperson said: “Semesterisation will help align York’s terms with UK and international partners. It will better support study abroad opportunities and a more evenly distributed workload across the year for students and staff. A common module credit size will provide more students the opportunity to take modules across academic disciplines." They added: "They are both important vehicles to allow us to improve the student learning experience at York.”

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