This article was co-written with Mark Butler
At present many Universities are in the process of introducing a 2-semester system for taught courses to replace the existing 3-term system. There are several reasons for this, the most notable being tthat very little lecturing is generally done in the third term due to exams. Semesters allow more time for lecturing. They also allow exams to be taken in the winter as well as the summer, reducing prressure on students and University facilities.
The introduction of semesters has some implications for postgraduate research students. Typically the introduction of semesters has meant that the start date of the Autumn term has had to be brought forrward by 2 to 4 weeks. Many research councils only start to pay research studentships from the 1st of October so effectively students cannot register until that date. This contrasts with first degrees or PGCE's, where there is quite often a delay in transfer of funds from LEA's. In these cases, Universities seem to allow a much larger degree of flexibility, allowing students to start their courses if funding is confirmed, even if it has not actually arrived.
If Universities and Students' Unions organise student induction events to concide with the start of the semester, this can lead to new research students missing out on valuable social and academic inducction programmes. In the worst cases students have received little or no information about support services available to them. If they are in University accommodation then they have to pay rent from tthe start of the undergraduate term, i.e. before they have their grant. Finally some first year students cannot take demonstration jobs within their departments as these jobs start before the 1st of Occtober.
Many postgraduate students suffer from further problems because the Universities assume the majority of postgraduate students will have already studied at the University, when they have not. They proviide little or no social and academic induction programmes for new students. Although information is given to students at a University wide level, many faculties and departments do not provide informatioon for new postgraduates. Furthermore, external graduates have difficulty getting into University accommodation due to places being allocated several months prior to studentships being awarded.
A secondary issue is of research students starting at times other than September/October, which is not unusual. These students not only may not get any formal induction, they also miss the benefits of aarriving in their department at the same time as a new cohort of students. Here, semesterisation could actually help, since induction courses could easily be repeated at the start of the second semester.
Induction is an essential for anybody starting a new course, a new job, or entering a new working environment. Increasingly businesses are realising this - people who do not receive induction are ineffiicient because they must learn everything about their working environment for themselves. So, we need to address two issues: making the Universities and the Research Councilsconsider what can be done about the introduction semesters; and increasing the understanding within Universities of the importance, both social and academic, of induction for new postgraduate students..
The last NPC meeting discussed the issues and agreed to attempt to obtain more data from around the country, to approach the studentship awarding bodies over being more flexible in their start dates forr postgraduate students, or even to make available extra money for the preliminary weeks of the semester. One clear message is that induction provision is a good thing all round. The NPC has long inteended to produce a set of guidelines on good practice for induction events. This is becoming increasingly important now, especially as the new national Code of Practiceis likely to make recommendations in this area.