Need to reconsider the structure of academic year at universities

Wednesday March 18 2020
ADUPIC

The current trimester system used by almost all public universities was first introduced at the University of Nairobi in the 1987/88 academic year. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By FRANCIS ADUOL

On December 21, 2019, the Nation ran an editorial suggesting that universities should review their admission dates to have the academic year start early, say, in July.

This consideration is based on the fact that the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examination results are nowadays released in December.

However, it might be useful to first reflect on how we got to the current structure of the academic year.

Up to 1974, the University of Nairobi (UoN) operated an academic year that ran from July to June and was divided into four quarters referred to as “terms”.

Most of the teaching took place in the first three terms while the last, commonly known as ‘Fourth Term’, was for extended practical sessions and attachments.

In July 1974, immediately after the start of the academic year, due to extended student protests, the university was closed for five months.

TRIMESTER SYSTEM

When it reopened in January 1975, the academic year had to be extended to September to cover for lost time. Subsequently, the next academic year was made to start in October.

The current trimester system used by almost all public universities was first introduced at the UoN in the 1987/88 academic year.

It was introduced largely to deal with the double intake of that year. One of its innovations, however, was that it provided for examinations to be taken every semester, which was hitherto not the case.

With the release of the KCSE exam results now happening in December and the Kenya Universities and Colleges Central Placement Service (KUCCPS) being able to place students in universities by the end of March, a number of universities admit new students quite early, in May or July.

It is, however, important that the question of when the academic year begins be looked at broadly.

July as the beginning of the academic year looks attractive and should be given serious consideration.

FISCAL YEAR

Starting the academic year in July would, however, call for further considerations.

If it happened, the current trimester structure may not work well as it would result in Christmas holidays falling right in the middle of the second semester.

To avoid that, a possible way forward would be to organise the academic year into four terms — July to September, October to December, January to March and April to June.

Organising the academic year in this way would have significant advantages, especially with respect to public universities.

Public universities are expected to make financial returns and other statutory reports based on the government’s fiscal year, which runs from July 1 to June 30 and is divided into four quarters.

But the academic year runs from September 1 to August 31 and is divided into three terms.

The consequence of this is that there are activities that always spill over into the next fiscal year from the previous academic year.

FUNDING

The misalignment of the government and the academic years also presents challenges in the funding of universities through the University Fund Board (UFB).

The taxpayer funding to universities is based on the government’s fiscal year.

For instance, universities that admit students in May require funding to their students for just two months in the current year (May to June); while the funds for the rest of the year (July to April) must be provided for in the next fiscal year.

Those who enrol in September, on the other hand, get funded for 10 months in the current fiscal year (September to June) and then for two months in the next fiscal year (July and August).

The challenges that UFB faces are equally relevant to the Higher Education Loans Board (Helb).

SYNCHRONISED REPORTING

Starting the academic year in July will not only allow students to join the university early, but also cause the academic year to be aligned with the government’s fiscal year.

Further, organising the academic year into quarters will provide for synchronised statutory reporting to the various state agencies.

Moreover, if this approach is adopted, public institutions would be in a position to effectively compete in attracting fee-paying students that may find it difficult to wait for almost 10 months to join university.

Prof Aduol, the vice-chancellor of the Technical University of Kenya (TUK), is member of KUCCPS board and Helb. [email protected]