Should Cambridge’s terms be longer than eight weeks?

13 March 2012

Few members of Cambridge University would deny that there is a lot to do. Fitting extreme amounts of work into three eight-week terms is no mean feat, and the question of why the University insists on retaining its short term structure is a common one. But is affection for tradition the only reason for the lack of change? Short terms come hand in hand with long holidays, and while ‘holiday’ might be a slightly misleading term they do serve a purpose. The question is, would an alternative structure be more efficient or more enjoyable in the long run? If there’s a better system out there then most Cambridge students would certainly like to hear about it.

Yes: Terms are too intense, and extending them would benefit all areas of student life, says Gianpiero Roscelli

Cambridge, along with Oxford, is unique in many ways, and its notoriously short terms are one of them. However, it is now time to question whether these remain as effective as before – the answer, it would seem, is no.

Lengthening each of the terms would significantly reduce the pressure for students to cram everything into eight weeks. As it is currently, many choose to stay behind at the end of term (or come up early the following term) to catch up with work they have not finished – testament to the difficulty of completing all required work. All subjects remain challenging at Cambridge, but it is the ones with multiple supervisions a week – natural sciences, medicine, and engineering, for instance – where the workload is at its peak. Students barely have enough time to understand the concept and perhaps one or two exam questions (of the fifty or so set) before they jump straight into the next topic, which builds on the previous week’s work. This leaves a lot of work left over for the holiday – when they are expected to revise it all and take on more examples!

It is also with great irony that Cambridge, a place renowned for its scholarly debate, barely gives students enough time to engage with the topic. Even for subjects with a relatively light load, one week is not enough to get involved with some of the biggest questions which that subject poses. Indeed, some supervisors within the faculty take this view, offering five topics to be studied within the term instead of the conventional eight. Therefore, it would seem there is growing support to increase the length of terms.

Certainly, all the work for each subject is probably possible if a student spent all day, every day, until midnight, for eight weeks, constantly working, without leaving his work. However, this is an implausible situation; most students, and rightly so, become involved with an array of activities – be it the many different sports on offer, college and university societies, charity events, the Cambridge Union: the list is endless. Increasing the length of terms would give students more time to enjoy the 500+ societies at Cambridge University, and perhaps give more students the chance to live a more realistic university experience (Fresher’s Week, for instance, is neither a week nor work-free). There are, for sure, the select few who can manage being captain of their Blues sports team, make hundreds laugh as a Footlight, volunteer for charity, be president of ten different societies and still manage a First – yet for most students, this is not realistic in eight weeks. Increasing term lengths would give the majority the opportunities of the few.

Lengthening the terms would open the possibility of moving lectures around more to accommodate extracurricular activities – is it beneficial for the engineering student, with 9am lecturers, and who rows all week from 6am, to always be ten minutes late? This raises another, if tenuous, point. It is not uncommon to see students sprinting past on their bicycles in a hurry, to get from supervision to a lecture. A more relaxed day, through longer terms, would reduce what is a contributing factor to cyclists’ accidents – not paying attention to their surroundings as they race from one end of Cambridge to another.

Simply by increasing the length of terms, students would instantly become more relaxed and less stressed; they would absorb more of the information they are studying from lectures being given by world-leading academics. Cambridge University has reformed much over the last 100 years, and traditionally it has been better at change than its sister university at Oxford. It is now time to reconsider change and increase the length of the Cambridge term.

Gianpiero Roscelli is a first-year historian at Robinson

No: Longer terms would merely dilute efficiency whilst raising expectations, argues Laura Fergus

What, you find it a bit tough to cope with what must be at least double the term-time workload of other universities in just slightly more than half the time? Oh. I thought admissions didn’t make mistakes…

Just kidding, my argument is more enlightened and less arrogant than that. We all know the Cambridge workload is tough. And having such short terms makes the pressure worse, right? So who would turn down the prospect of extending term by a few weeks to reduce the stress, particularly at those times when the satisfaction of printing, stapling and pigeonhole-ing one essay lasts only minutes before thoughts turn to how you’re going to get the next one done for 4 days time? Well, to be honest, I would. (And that’s not just so that I can get those essays done and get the hell out of here!)

It’s obvious, but still worth pointing out, that there is a flipside to having such short terms. And that is very long holidays, which would rapidly shrink if we stuck another couple of weeks on the beginning or end of every term.

Vacations are a useful time for finally getting round to following up references in lectures, going over what you didn’t quite understand and doing that extra reading that never quite makes it to the top of the priority list in an 8 week term. And they need to be long because there’s a lot of it to be done. True, but you could say that’s a weak argument because you’d get all that done in term time if it was longer.

But, would you really? Or would you not just spend longer on the work you’re already capable of squeezing into 8 weeks, even if it does mean there’s inevitably a week of feeling blue somewhere in the middle? I think having longer to spend on the same work would only serve to raise expectations of standards, our own and those of our supervisors, which would hardly reduce the pressure.

Also, in my opinion – and I realise I’m speaking mostly to the Arts students here – spending longer completing term time set work would be detrimental in the long run because, whilst this work is clearly an important way of getting a grasp on topics, on its own it’s only really half of what’s important. At the end of the year, we are examined in a completely different way to that by which our progress is monitored all year, and unfortunately the work that goes into writing an extended essay does not necessarily equip you with the skills and knowledge to answer several broader questions concerning the whole course during the exam.

I also think the long holidays are important in another way. Aside from the intellectually demanding lectures and supervisions, I think that finding a work-life balance is one of the hardest things about Cambridge life. Besides providing the perfect environment for study, Cambridge also provides us with a phenomenal amount of distractions from this pursuit. These come in the form of sports tournaments, the ADC, musical societies and opportunities to practice being a journalist, for example. Not to mention living in the same building as your best friends. Everyone makes Cambridge the experience they want it to be, but I think the prospect of a good few weeks out of the bubble every now and then does us all good. By providing the promise of a time to both rest and catch up, it helps us make the most of what is on offer here while also dealing with the intensity.

Oh and finally, longer terms would mean that May week would be in July. And that’s just silly.

Laura Fergus is a second-year geographer at Newnham