Less stress

Green light for shorter academic year pilots

UU has considered shortening the academic year in the past. One of the ideas was to shift the blocks around Christmas. Illustration: DUB

A shorter academic year would give teachers and researchers more time to carry out their research and improve their classes, argues the Dutch Minister of Education, Robbert Dijkgraaf, in a letter to the House of Representatives. Students are also thought to benefit from this — for example, by having more time for work placements.

The idea of establishing a "smarter academic year" was conceived by The Young Academy (link in Dutch, Ed.), the society of relatively young scientists affiliated with the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. A comparison with the situation abroad shows that the academic year in the Netherlands is a whopping nine weeks longer than in other European countries, which they suspect generates a higher workload.

Also online
How the study programmes will go about shortening the academic year is not yet clear. According to Dijkgraaf, options include removing any unnecessary overlaps between components and decreasing the number of interim exams and resits.

Interestingly, it looks like online education could also help shorten the academic year. The Minister thinks that universities could have more efficient timetables by teaching more classes online. He invited all research universities and two universities of applied sciences to take part in the pilots. Reportedly, several institutions have shown interest. They can enter a maximum of three programmes into the pilots, which will run from 2023 until 2026.

A press release from the ministry states: “The University of Amsterdam and Erasmus University Rotterdam will be in charge of knowledge-sharing, monitoring and accountability. Two years into the pilot, the initial results and will be evaluated and possible adjustments will be considered.”

10 million euros
The minister has set aside ten million euros for the pilots, stating that ”they should not take away from the quality of education, students’ learning achievements, and the learning outcomes of the programmes involved.” In addition, the idea is not to schedule the same amount of teaching in fewer weeks, as this would not lead to an actual reduction in the number of contact hours.

Student association ISO is reluctant to make any definitive statements. “It’s a good thing if this actually leads to more breathing space,” says chair Terri van der Velden. “We should jump at any opportunity to accomplish that. We do have some questions, though. For example, we don’t see how limiting the number of resits is going to reduce stress.”

ISO is also sceptical of the new timetables, fearing that study programmes will simply cram all classes into fewer weeks, which would not make things any "smarter". Or perhaps students will simply get fewer classes, which would likely have a negative impact on quality. “Getting rid of some overlap will not free up nine weeks,” Van der Velden says.

The Young Academy’s proposal was met with a mixed response last year. Similar to the student organisations, the ComeniusNetwerk society of excellent lecturers remained hesitant (link in Dutch only, Ed). The General Union of Education, on the other hand, did react enthusiastically.

Utrecht University has been considering shortening the academic year for quite a while. Earlier this year, UU announced it was willing to take part in several experiments. Not only is UU thinking about rearranging the schedule and offering fewer resits, but it is also contemplating various forms of education. That's why the Annual Schedule Committee has been set up for this purpose, but students are also welcome to weigh in. Seven pilots have been proposed. Asked to react on them, the DUB panel wasn't so sure that reducing the number of resits would lead to less stress.