Do we need semesters?
The University Grants Commission (UGC) has asked all its affiliates to implement the semester system by July 1. No new programme or curriculum will be approved unless the academic calendar is divided into two halves. The arguments are simple: since the public universities are using it, the private ones must follow suit for a uniform structure of study period. Trimesters, practised in most of the private universities, divide an academic year into three terms (each about 12-13 weeks long), and arguably encourage teachers to cut corners and reduce content. There is not enough preparatory time for exams. Apparently, the "hidden" reason for opting for the trimester system is "commercial" as private universities "benefit" from three rounds of enrolments.
Private universities have been running with credit-hour-driven, trimester-based, UGC-approved curricula since the 1990s. In the early 2000s, public universities started shifting to the semester system. But the UGC now requires all tertiary institutions to implement a standard system. From a logistics perspective, this new model will apply only to the incoming students—there will be two simultaneous systems during the roll-out phase. Has there been any study to find out if the universities in question have the necessary classrooms and teachers to run two parallel systems? There are already some universities where the old programmes are being run in a trimester system, while the recently approved ones are being run in a semester system with great difficulty.
The Bangladesh National Qualifications Framework (BNQF), prepared by the Bangladesh Accreditation Council (BAC) and circulated by the UGC, aims at benchmarking our system against the best international practices. Interestingly, BNQF insists on modular and unitised course-offering for greater transparency, delivery efficacy, and learning benefits. BNQF outlines the credit hours, not the academic semesters. Why is UGC so insistent on the revised study period, then, when BAC is not?
Students pay per credit of coursework. In theory, the number of semesters will have no impact on university revenue. If the intake deadline is fixed by the government in alignment with the publication of HSC results, then the proposed change will be inconsequential. However, the mode of payment can appear to be burdensome for many students as some of the bigger private universities have a policy of upfront payment. If the UGC is sincere in streamlining the study period, then it must first work on bringing all stakeholders together. The higher secondary and tertiary systems must devise a supply-chain model, so that students get a fair opportunity to choose between public and private institutions.
The reluctance of certain private universities in resorting to the semester system makes us revisit the pros and cons of both the systems. The arguments for the semester system include the extra time teachers will get to give in-depth instructions. It facilitates greater collaboration between the faculty and the students. The preparatory week before exams and the longer break between semesters are useful. Conversely, the semester system demands a student to enrol for five to six taught courses in order to graduate in time. Therefore, students get a relatively shorter study period as they are required to be on campus for six days a week. There are more accumulative exams with only two breaks in a year.
In a trimester, students enrol in three or four courses per term with longer study periods. They have four short breaks in a year with three graduation/enrolment dates. Students can take on more courses with greater flexibility, required to be on campus three to four days a week. The trimester system generally allows students more flexibility in scheduling classes, looking for part-time jobs, and getting involved in co-curricular activities. The extra number of courses in the trimester system gives students more opportunities to sample diverse subjects, including remedial courses. The downsides include the faster pace, which puts pressure on students. They don't have any preparation week before exams. For the staff, the administrative work can be overwhelming.
The UGC reasons that the semester system is congenial for faculty research. Not all undergraduate teaching entities are research institutions, and how best a faculty can use the longer semestrial break needs further guidance. The key difference between the public and the private, however, rests on the assessment criteria. Given the wide range of courses covered in a semester, more than one teacher is assigned to teach a course. The final exams are evaluated by two examiners in public universities. Consequently, there are delays in result publications. Students resume their new semester without getting results of the old. A June 2020 report published in this newspaper observed that out of 83 departments of four public universities—Dhaka, Jahangirnagar, Chattogram and Rajshahi—75 failed to publish their semester results within the scheduled time of eight weeks. They took 18-34 weeks. In contrast, the private system with single course teachers is quite punctual in their result publication.
There are reasonable arguments on both sides. The UGC, however, is tilted towards the public-oriented semester system. If the performance of the public universities is any indication, the attempt to divide up the academic calendar pie is a reminder of the proverbial monkey. To ensure that the pie is best served according to the UGC design, a unique 16-digit ID is now being proposed so that any option to show the third semester is eliminated. This is in contrast to the BAC prescription, which has no observation on the semester. Because the accreditation agency knows that for greater student mobility and international mapping, we need to align our calendars with international ones where credit hours are more important than the weekly chart. If so, why cannot we allow both the systems to persist?
Dr Shamsad Mortuza is the pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB).