It was with some consternation that I learned that my daughter, a first year university student, would be coming home for the Easter break and not returning to university, other than to submit some assessed coursework. It's the kind of thing that causes dark thoughts to crowd in on a parent. Is she unhappy? Is she unwell? Or is she still not capable of reading a calendar properly?
But, no. It seems most of her friends have already gone home, and will also only be returning to take exams or hand in essays. Their summer term will be very short --a single month -- and is an "assessment period", in which no teaching takes place. For them, the academic year is effectively over. Really? And all this for a mere £9000 p.a.!
After I'd made a few enquiries and done a few comparative sums, it emerged that quite a few universities are quietly shrinking the teaching year from the traditional three ten-week terms to an Oxbridge-style 24 weeks, sometimes split into two longish 12-week terms, sometimes spread in a complex overlay of two "semesters" over three terms. In the process, it appears that some are abolishing the summer term. At those institutions the student year, as a communal experience, now simply fizzles out in April.
I have to say I am amazed. The 1970s, when I was a student, may be slipping into history -- incredibly, 1974 is as far in the past now as 1934 was back then -- but I still recall those summer terms vividly. When people talk of the Student Experience (and they do, incessantly and anxiously, within university circles*) it is surely that sequence of year-end terms they ought to have in mind. Whether it was the compression of a few years of neglected study into a month of cramming in the run-up to finals, or the bliss of a couple of summer months without the pressure of exams, those weeks from Easter until mid-June were an intensely-lived experience. It was, traditionally, a time when undergraduates -- mainly destined for worthy but dusty careers in public service -- got to behave, briefly but memorably, like the decadent idle rich, in a sort of swot's heaven. I think I even once went punting in a Laura Ashley dress, though I may be making that up.
By contrast, a sort of alienated, lonely drifting-away in April is not the stuff of fond memories. We seem to be moving towards an industrial efficiency in graduate throughput that may, I suspect, presage a move to intensive two-year degrees. I'm not sure what the actual benefit of a factory-farmed, leisure-free degree would be: it seems like an academic version of the bean-counter's fallacy that 100 men can dig the same hole 100 times faster than one man. My vision of the Degree-in-Pill-Form starts to seem less satirical. It's yet another step down the road that leads to Ant World, where any moment not spent on achieving carefully-aligned national, corporate and personal goals by approved methods is a wasted moment. Possibly, eventually, a criminal moment.
This is not even to mention the prospect of bored young adults hanging around the parental home for four long summer months -- heh, as if that were even a problem! -- or trying, hopelessly, to enter the job market temporarily which so many long to join permanently. Once upon a time, of course, as well as there being full, serial maintenance grants, all students were entitled to sign on for Supplementary Benefit (a.k.a. The Dole) during university vacations. No, really: I remember those weekly Giro cheques with great fondness.
Ah, the world we have lost... And all because nobody wants to pay taxes any more.
* The hope is to make the Student Experience at your institution so compelling that (a) school-leavers choose you, rather than the competition, and (b) graduates (sorry: alumni) remember you with such fondness they feel inclined to bestow regular gifts of cash (to make up for those taxes they don't want to pay).