The Disadvantages of a Semester System in UK Universities

Many British universities tried changing from the three terms per year system to the American semester system of two sessions per year, in the 1990’s. Some changed but found the system unworkable and returned to the original British system from 2002 onwards. It seems that there are difficulties with semesters, for British universities, and disadvantages for both universities and students.

In Britain, changing over to the semester arrangement of the academic year was coupled with changing to modular degrees. Huddersfield University was the first university in Britain to change to the semester system, but returned to the three-term year in 2003. Glamorgan University also returned from two fifteen-week semesters to the traditional three-term year in 2003. Some British universities, including Kingston University (Surrey), have a hybrid semester system and modular degrees. They have a three-term year but teaching is divided into two semesters running from September to July. .

The semester system has certain disadvantages both for universities and for students. Most Universities introduced the semester system to accommodate the modular degree and this was difficult for both academics and students. The two systems were introduced together, as part of the scheme to expand higher education. Modular systems work on a credit system, each module counting for credit towards the student’s final degree.

University teaching and learning is very different in Britain, to some other countries. In Britain, students have responsibility for their own learning, and tutors and lecturers do not control or lead students to knowledge but rather suggest where they might look to find that knowledge. British undergraduates do much more self-directed and independent study and reading, than in other countries. Students are they expected to think things through and come to their own conclusions and then to explain those conclusions, backing their conclusions with logical reasoning based on the facts. Simply regurgitating the facts that you tutor has taught on the course will not earn a British university degree. Lecturers and tutors do not tell students how to learn, or think and university learning in Britain is more than being force fed facts. Hence, in the United Kingdom, a student reads for a degree.

The semester and modular system, therefore, caused academics some problems. Academics felt that the modular/semester system meant that students were sitting too many examinations, simply to complete a module rather than as a necessary part of the learning process. For some subject areas, they also felt that modular learning encouraged compartmentalization of knowledge, rather than applying new knowledge to the subject as a whole, and that it discouraged lateral thinking. In other subject areas, they felt that the modular/semester system only allowed a surface knowledge of a particular topic area, whereas year-long study allowed both in-depth study and the necessary reflection and thinking that the subject requires.

Academics also thought that the semester system/ modularization means most modules being taught for 12 -16, or more, continuous weeks, which academics felt was too long a period of continuous study. Although some universities had tried to overcome this by having “reading weeks”, or “Test weeks”, half-way through semesters. Some lecturers and tutors thought that the semester/ modular system, far from offering the choice that it was supposed to offer students, made it difficult to tailor learning programmes to individual students.

The most difficult aspect of the semester system, for students, was in fitting Easter and Christmas as well as examinations around the semesters without encroaching onto the length of vacations. The United Kingdom does not have as many holidays as most other countries and, therefore, Universities have three vacations per year, four, or more, weeks at Easter and Christmas and the long summer vacation. It was difficult to fit the semester system into this model. For example, a semester system can mean that lectures continue right up to Christmas and exams begin directly after the break. Many British students must work during their vacations, to fund their studies. They would not be available to work in the important run up to Christmas, or at the other times, when British companies are looking for extra casual workers. Academics recognized this as a vital consideration for many students. It also means that European students, a significant number attend British universities, going home for Christmas, would have to pay premium fares because they would be traveling at peak times. In addition, it means that students, revising for examinations during the Christmas break, cannot access the university library or consult tutors before the examinations.

The semester system along with modular degrees was tried in many British universities in the 1990’s, many universities have returned to a traditional three term system and year long modules, others have a hybrid system where the university year is arranged in three terms but where teaching is arranged in two semesters. The semester / modular systems were introduced without sufficient thought as to how they would work in the British university system. Their advantages were over-sold to both students and academics. Universities were encouraged to adopt the semester system without thought as to how it would fit British universities and students, or how universities might adapt the system to fit British university study and life to British conditions. Successive British governments saw it as a way to get a more skilled workforce quickly and as a cheap way to do so. It is difficult to arrange the semester system in the British university system and many British universities, who tried the semester system, have returned to the traditional three-term system. However, some universities have made the necessary adaptations to the system to make it work in the British Education environment, for the university, the academics, their students and to enhance and ensure quality teaching and learning.