Opinion // 17.06.2016 // Curated by Ed.

The Need for Speed: Open universities and polytechs year-round

Traditionally, tertiary institutions teach in a comprehensive way for around 22-24 weeks per year.  Another 4-6 weeks is allocated to study breaks and examinations.  A small selection of courses is available over Summer School, in cases where it is offered.  The result is that (not counting Summer School), in each half of the year, only 11-12 weeks is spent teaching. We can do better.

What if tertiary institutions were open at full-noise, all year-round?  For example, running 3 full trimesters each year, amounting to 33-36 weeks of teaching – the remaining 3-4 months of the year being spent on study breaks, exams and holidays?  What might the benefits of that be to learners?  Learners could:

  • Complete a 3-year degree in 2 years;
  • Study 3 days a week and work 2 days a week and still complete in 3 years (which should be helpful to those who are vulnerable financially);
  • Take a trimester off for work experience opportunities throughout the year, rather than just over summer; and
  • Take a trimester off each year whenever it suited them for a holiday, and still complete in 3 years.

Furthermore, it would mean:

  • Not everyone would be hitting the graduate and holiday job markets at the same time;
  • Not everyone would be seeking and leaving accommodation at the same time; and
  • The public would receive improved value out of the billions of dollars of public assets that sit un- or under-used for 50% of the year.

This last point is important from a system perspective.  The property, plant and equipment across universities, polytechnics and wānanga is valued at over $8.5B[1].  When this investment is considered alongside the fact that comprehensive teaching only occurs for 22-24 weeks per year, we believe there is room for improved return through increased utilisation.

We asked learners “How interested would you be in shortening the length of your study (e.g. complete a 3-year degree in 2 years) by studying over the summer?”. We received 1369 responses.  77% were either very interested (41%) or somewhat interested (36%).

We also asked “Would you like the option to study part-time and have more time to work if you could do so without having to study any longer (e.g. you could still complete a degree in 3 years)”.  We received 1371 responses.  74% responded ‘Yes’, 11% responded ‘No’ and the remaining 15% were ‘Not sure’.

Clearly, there is an appetite from learners for the kind of flexibility and speed that would come with tertiary institutions being open year-round for comprehensive teaching. There would still be 25%-30% of the year ‘free’ for exams, holidays and rotation for maintenance purposes.

It should be noted that institutions already operate in this way (or similar) for a selection of programmes. There is talk from some that they intend to do more, which is fantastic.  We should do it for them all.

While implementation of this idea across the board would represent a substantial departure from current practice, it really is just proposing we do more of the same – just more efficiently and in a way that provides more flexibility to the learner. As a first step, though, and one that would deliver substantial benefit to learners, we believe it would be a great start.

Let’s speed things up.

For those who are interested, our full submission to the Productivity Commission on what should change in tertiary education can be found here.

[1] This figure is based on information contained in the most recent publicly available Annual Reports of 16 tertiary institutions across New Zealand.