The University of St Andrews appears to be moving a step closer to reinstating a reading week in the first semester, following discussions between the Students’ Association’s director of representation, Teddy Woodhouse, and the University.
At last week’s Students’ Representative Council (SRC) meeting, Mr Woodhouse updated the members on the outcome of his latest efforts. He later said: “We’re working with the University to secure a break in the middle of first semester starting in the next academic year. We’ve jumped the first hurdle of getting everyone on the same page: we need a break in the first semester, and it needs to happen starting next year. Now the discussion are about the practicals – where we can borrow days, where we can create that break, and how do we manage the knock-on effects of this – and I’m confident we’ll have something next year.”
Up until the academic year 2011-12, the University allowed for a reading week in the middle of the first semester, with no lectures held in order to ensure that students could catch up on any outstanding work. First semester exams were held after Christmas, in January of the next year, followed by a two week break before the second semester began.
Following a consultation, it was agreed in November 2010 by the Academic Council that from the academic year 2012-13, the structure would be changed to the current system, with the 14 week first semester running from September to December. This resulted in the first semester beginning earlier in September, with reading week abolished and all exams completed before Christmas.
At the time, proponents of the changes argued that the new system would result in less stress for students over the festive period, as they would no longer be facing the prospect of examinations early in the new year.
The expense of having to travel back and forwards to St Andrews in the winter would also be minimised, it was suggested. It was hoped that with the longer five week inter-semester break, students could also gain valuable work experience or begin reading for the second semester.
However, the reforms soon encountered opposition as students and staff became increasingly stressed due to the intense semester structure of ten weeks of classes, followed by exams.
Staff also argued that the denser structure of the semester would mean that they would have less time to mark assignments, reducing the detailed feedback that students hope to receive.
Furthermore, although the academic calendar had often resulted in classes continuing until close to Christmas, international students frequently booked flights for shortly before this time, in order to avoid expensive air fares in the days running up to Christmas Day. Under the current system, some students have exams right up until days before Christmas and cannot go home early.
For 2013-14, there are additional fears that the extreme weather conditions predicted for this winter will lead to significant transport disruption, potentially leading to airports closing and students being left stranded in the days before Christmas.
As the changes came into effect last academic year, many students suggested that their fears were being realised. Some said that the time left for them to engage in extra-curricular activities, a key part of the St Andrews experience, had been significantly eroded. Others objected to the perceived unfairness of certain faculties conducting assessments in revision week by classifying them as ‘class tests’ rather than ‘exams’.
One of Mr Woodhouse’s key election promises was to pressure the University to bring in a first semester break in November 2013. By the start of September of this year, he admitted in a blog post that his goal had not been achieved.
He said: “Unfortunately, by the time I was in post in July, the decision had been made, and there wasn’t any wiggle room for a break this year. It’s a huge frustration on my part, because this was something I truly believed in and was committed to, but it was something that I couldn’t deliver in the time scale given to me.”
Mr Woodhouse said that the Students’ Association will continue to focus on improving students’ mental health and welfare to ensure those who are suffering from stress have adequate support:
“As your DoRep, I’ll be putting time and effort during the exam season and other peak academic crunch periods to promote positive student mental health. This year, expect the Students’ Association to do more than it has before in promoting positive student mental health during term time.”
He continued:“We’ve created the SRC Wellbeing Officer position – the first time in too long a time of having a single elected officer wholly dedicated to supporting student wellbeing. In the weeks ahead, we’re putting together a large range of events and resources under the #TakeCare brand, and we’re assembling a brief info packet ‘It’s Not You, It’s Scotland’ to explain the adverse health effects that the short day span in Scottish winters can have, and giving students the skills to improve their own mental health.”