Polytech eyes term changes

Phil Ker
Phil Ker
Otago Polytechnic is about to consult staff and students on a plan to replace the traditional two-semester tertiary study year with three trimesters.

Rather than the 32-week academic year running from about mid-February to the end of October, the new system would introduce three 14-week trimesters running from mid-January to about the end of November.

A preliminary investigation last year showed senior staff supported the idea, believing it had "considerable potential merits", chief executive Phil Ker said yesterday.

This year, school of information technology head Lesley Smith would lead a 10-person working party which would consult widely on the concept and report back to the leadership team by September 30.

If the proposal was endorsed, the change would begin in 2013.

Otago would be the first polytechnic to introduce a trimester system, Mr Ker said, although the Wellington Institute of Technology had a limited third semester, operating as a summer school.

The new system, the biggest organisational restructuring since semesters were introduced about 25 years ago, would reduce down-time during the year and bring "huge benefits" for staff and students, Mr Ker said.

Academic staff would teach two of three trimesters, leaving them a useful block of time for non-classroom duties such as research projects, curriculum development and consultancy.

One-year certificate courses could be completed in eight months, putting students on the job market ahead of other institutions' graduates.

Diplomas and degrees could also be completed more quickly. If students passed all their papers, a three-year degree could be completed in two years and a four-year degree in three.

Initial research showed that option appealed to students, Mr Ker said.

"In today's era of tight finances, why wouldn't students want to get their qualifications faster and save on living costs and student loans? It would also save the Government money on student loans and allowances."

Last year, the polytechnic commissioned a survey of New Zealand school leavers and adults thinking about polytechnic study as well as prospective students from India and China. More than 60% of 802 respondents favoured the idea of completing their qualifications more quickly and indicated such an option would influence where they enrolled.

The proposal "was as much about addressing staff workloads" as it was about attracting new students, Mr Ker also said.

Capped rolls for domestic student intakes meant Otago could not enrol more domestic students without approval.

However, the trimester system could bring more international enrolments.

The trimesters would each be about two weeks shorter than a semester.

Traditionally, there had been a view that reducing class contact time resulted in inferior teaching and poorer student achievement, but Mr Ker said studies showed that was not true.

"Students might be required to do slightly more projects and more independent learning, but there is evidence that is far more useful for students' learning than sitting in a lecture ..."

The polytechnic's midwifery degree programme already operated on a longer academic year, which enabled students to complete a four-year degree in three.

Mr Ker said students were enthusiastic about the restructuring of that programme and monitoring showed student achievement and the quality of teaching and learning had been maintained.

Otago Polytechnic Students Association president Michelle Fidow said when contacted she had not heard about the trimester proposal and would be interested in learning more.

Her initial concern was that trimesters might mean polytechnic study breaks would not align with school holidays.

"All our holidays are pretty much the same as the school holidays. I would have a concern for our students who are parents if the holidays did not coincide."