By Anna Debeye
In 2021, the Jonge Akademie, a platform of young scholars, released a report describing how teachers and students in the Netherlands are unhappy with the current structure and length of the academic year. The Minister of Education, Robbert Dijkgraaf, has therefore asked Dutch universities to design a ‘smarter academic year’ in order to create more breathing space for students and lecturers. The University of Amsterdam (UvA) is participating in three pilots and AUC will be a part of the pilot ‘reflection and curricula review exercise’. Starting in September 2024, AUC therefore aims to decrease the amount of teaching weeks within the university.
According to Marianne Riphagen, AUC’s Director of Education, the current academic calendar – a 16-week period including one class-free week followed by a 4-week intensive – creates high levels of stress and pressure for both students and staff. A steering group is therefore in charge of creating a fitting proposal for the pilot at AUC. This group consists of members of the Student Council, the Board of Studies (BoS), the Admissions & Registrar Team and the Heads of Studies, working under the supervision of Riphagen. The steering group is currently considering lengthening the AUC classes from 1 hour and 30 minutes to 1 hour and 45 minutes; this allows the current 16-week period to be shortened to 13 weeks of classes, resulting in three class-free weeks per semester.
The steering group is still in conversation on the best use of these weeks. Lola Collingbourne, the representative of the Student Council within the steering group, refers to the class-free weeks as a necessity for most students: “That period is your chance to catch up.” Increasing the amount of class-free time is supposed to do exactly that, according to Riphagen: “If you have a solid block of constant running, as humans, it can become too much.”
Ingrid Sommer, a representative of the BoS, also addresses this issue: “The catch is how to resolve rather than just displace the pressure.” As the Dutch law requires students to work 1680 hours per year – 28 hours per credit – it may be difficult to reduce the pressure on students and staff with these types of legal boundaries. The steering group is considering multiple solutions to this problem, such as reducing the required four assessments per semester and experimenting with alternative methods of assessment. As it may also be necessary to condense the class material, changing the current lecture format “will take a considerable amount of time from the faculty,” according to Sommer. However, these changes should eventually ensure that the quality of education remains high while the levels of stress for and the pressure on lecturers and students are reduced.
The pilot will run until spring 2026, but it is not yet certain how its success will be measured. Sommer stresses that “faculty and student opinion is instrumental in deciding whether this is a good pilot or not.” The steering group is currently considering spreading surveys amongst staff and students both before and during the pilot in order to monitor its progress. Collingbourne also adds that there will be a constant conversation with all involved parties throughout the pilot, which will allow changes to be made during the process.
The role of UvA is also important, for the university is one of the coordinators of the national pilot. This is beneficial to AUC, as it creates opportunities for knowledge sharing, according to Riphagen. UvA has also received a budget of €74,320 per year per pilot, part of which will be allocated to AUC. The steering group has not settled yet on how to spend the money; it may be used for research purposes or to pay for educational expertise.
Although much is still unclear about the pilot, Riphagen knows one thing for certain: “What we do not aspire to do is differentiate within AUC.” All majors will receive the same treatment and the new calendar must preserve the mobility for both students and staff between AUC, VU and UvA. The changes can therefore not be too radical and the steering group is working hard to create a proposal that considers all these angles. Sommer, Collingbourne and Riphagen all have a positive outlook towards this new academic year. “All I’ve heard are people who are very keen to make it work,” Riphagen says with a smile.