Open Letter to Vice Chancellor Ian Jacobs about the “UNSW3+ Model”

Dear Professor Jacobs,

I write to you as a member of university staff, postgraduate student, and a member of the Advisory Group to the Diversity Champion for Disability. I am deeply concerned about the proposed “UNSW3+ Model”, and believe that you should be too. This model will have a negative impact upon student welfare, is based on insufficient consultation with student and staff, and will ultimately make the university less diverse.

From 2007 to 2008, the university reduced 14-week semesters to 12-week teaching periods. This change was very poorly received by students and staff, particularly in Semester One when there were approximately 3 weeks only before the mid semester break. The introduction of Saturday exams impacted upon students’ ability to work part time jobs, often necessary to fund their studies. As a result, the university introduced the “12 in 13 week” teaching period in 2009. This was a means of placating the concerns of staff and students.

Proposals for ten-week semesters under the “UNSW3+ Model” will have a dire impact on student welfare. Notwithstanding students can elect for instance to take two subjects per trimester instead of three or four, there are many issues with this system. A thought experiment Professor Jacobs: imagine you are a rural or international student moving to Sydney for the first time. Whilst having to adjust to the culture of a large city, a diverse community and population, exorbitant rent, academic conventions such as referencing and research skills, you have to find a job and study courses with almost constant assessments over a ten week period. There is little time for adjustment, social exploration and general wellbeing. Anecdotally, we know this because of the impact of trimesters on students at UTS.

Another thought experiment: imagine you are a twenty year old in your third year. Things have been going well for you so far at uni. You develop a mental illness. You miss the tighter census dates than those that exist under the semester system. You have to navigate an overstretched Disability Services department to get special consideration arrangements made, if your health begins to improve and you happen to have good skills in advocacy. You simply cannot get an appointment at CAPS. Student Services will not approve your application to defer without academic and financial penalty, as you have not got the appropriate, professional documentation. You might want to drop out of uni. This signifies wasted talent for the university and society, a capable student not being given the support they need. It also represents institutional indifference. This fate will become more common under UNSW3+.

As a student, staff member, and supporter of our university, I am also concerned about this new model in terms of the consultation process used. In the detailed information presented to staff about the proposal for UNSW3+ in September this year, it was revealed that a survey of student opinions in May most favoured the current academic calendar. Whilst the university states that “63% of students prefer an alternate academic calendar,” among the four choices presented to students, the current academic calendar was most popular with 37% of the vote. If the four proposals are crudely considered in terms of the two which presented semester options and the two which presented trimester options, semesters nonetheless received 52% of the vote. Therefore, heeding the student body’s voice would mean retaining semesters.

Furthermore, the Diversity Champions Initiative was formed in May this year as part of the University’s 2025 blueprint, meaning under theme B1 ‘A Just Society’ diversity, equity and inclusion are goals for the university moving forward. However, in a ‘Control F’ search of nineteen pages of university communications to staff on UNSW3+ covering the issues of Staff, Students and Program Design in October, the words ‘equity,’ ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ were not found once in 5946 words. Whilst subsequent efforts have been made to consult students since the initial survey in May, most recently with a very brief survey in November (sent out during Stuvac!), I believe the university must consider those groups who will most be affected by a shift to trimesters with extensive consultation, such as students with disabilities and international students. As a member of the Advisory Group to the Diversity Champion for Disability, I am still yet to see that consultation for students with disabilities.

Finally, UNSW3+ would make the university a less diverse place. Students with complex needs often simply need arrangements to be made to their study requirements to adapt to university. However, this requires time, dialogue with university staff and some familiarity with who their lecturers, tutors or lab demonstrators actually are. In the rush of a ten week semester, this would often be impossible. As has been pointed out by student leaders, the ability to create vibrant campus culture through extra curricular activities would also be undermined – volunteering and social engagement goes first when we are time poor. UNSW3+ would therefore weaken the impact of student exchange, study abroad and Arc@UNSW.

A final proposition, Professor Jacobs. I completed a Bachelor at UNSW and am near the end of my Masters here. I completed exchange with a 4.0 GPA at UC Berkeley. I have studied managing disability since practically the beginning of my time at UNSW. I worked as an editor of Tharunka and have talked to, lived with, been mentored by and made friendships with international students, writers, young Liberals, Greenies, leading academics and alumni. I would not consider studying at UNSW with UNSW3+ Model in place, and believe that if it came in when I was in the initial years of my Bachelors degree, I would have dropped out in the likely event that it exacerbated my disability. I can vouch to you, that this is the case with many other students. So the question is, do you still defend the UNSW3+ Model, and all it represents for student consultation, diversity and student welfare? The decision is yours.

Yours sincerely,

Cameron McPhedran

BA, MCJC candidate, Nura Gili casual tutor, UNSW International casual employee, Disability Champion Committee member and Tharunka editor 2011-2. Cameron’s views are his own and do not reflect those of Nura Gili, Tharunka and Arc, as well as UNSW International.