Trimesters Explained


Trimester vs. Semester talk has been buzzing around UNSW for the past few weeks, yet very few members of the student body seem to understand what the UNSW3+ model really is. Hence we decided to publish an article clarifying this.

10 teaching weeks, 2 weeks of vacation between terms and a shortened summer break. Sounds pretty horrible right? This is exactly what UNSW has suggested as a part of the Scientia Educational Experience. Although evaluated at face value this looks pretty grim, the reality behind the situation is there are two sides to any coin. Let’s explore how this will affect students

When an email suggesting UNSW will be implementing a new academic calendar landed in my inbox I was initially horrified when I realized trimesters was an option. We have all heard about the somewhat horrific experience that some of our colleagues at UTS have encountered. Further research into why exactly UNSW are trying to do, uncovered some key differences and some perks that have got me genuinely interested.

What does the proposed model look like?


The immediately apparent difference is there are now 3 teaching terms, instead of 2, that is in addition to a shortened summer school of 5 weeks. The number of teaching weeks per term have been cut down from 12 to 10. The summer break has been cut short by 4 weeks and the breaks in-between terms is just 2 weeks instead of 4.

But there are several similarities between the proposed and current models. The minimum full time study load remains at 6 subjects per and the normal study load is still 8 subjects per year. So far it seems like this is just a plan where our holidays have been cut short and the same amount of content is being crammed into a shorter period of time, but let’s dig a little deeper.

What does it mean for us as students?

The main reason for the implementation of such a calendar is to allow for improved course flexibility. The current semester system is a rigid box which allows very little wiggle room, however the proposed UNSW 3+ model seems to have many alternative student pathways available.


A normal load student would be undertaking 8 subjects per year (the same as we currently do), but doing so gives us the option of undertaking just 2 subjects in the third term. Although completing 3 courses in 10 weeks seems daunting, a few facts ease the fears. The quality of the education doesn’t seem to have any sort of drop off as the number of contact hours per course will remain the same. Cramming in the contact hours of 12 weeks into 10 won’t necessarily make the week more hectic as we do need to acknowledge the fact we will be studying 3 courses instead of 4.  

A quick calculation presented to us by Professor Bruce Henry, the head of the school of maths and stats shows this quite clearly.


The new trimester system matches up better with the university model implemented in the northern hemisphere and would make exchange far easier for us.

Through the eyes of the student body

An initial concern which surfaced about Youth Allowance and Opal Concession eligibility has now being alleviated due to the university saying since the students will still be taking at least 6 courses a year their full time student status will remain intact which will still make them eligible for Youth Allowance and Opal Concession benefits.

A legitimate concern is about how illness and other external disruptions will affect such a compact schedule. This is something that has been iterated many times by the tickets running for the SRC this time and this seems to be the main drawback on the trimester system. Although the weekly workload seems to reduce, the consequences of missing one class will be magnified. The stress of missing such a class might be significantly higher due to this reason and the logistics regarding how assessments will be organised over a 10 week period could possibly make the model more stressful.

Currently many external events/competitions that UNSW students participate in run in accordance with the semester system followed by the majority of the universities in Australia. However, switching to trimesters might mean that these events might clash with the academic calendar and this is something the university needs to be cognizant to when making decisions.

Having only a 2 week break between the terms is also something that has troubled the students. This short turnaround might not allow for students to relax and recharge for a new term. The university hasn’t outlined how exactly this will be handled but they are aware of the issue and we will be eagerly waiting for the next development regarding this.

The student body at UNSW has vehemently opposed the UNSW3+ model. However, through our research we understood it might be simply because the student body is uninformed. The two major reasons the student body opposes this are the following.

  1. The workload will be too stressful.
  2. The system at UTS has failed, hence this model too will fail.

Despite the misleading nature, the calculation shown by Professor Henry clearly shows that the weekly workload will reduce.

The model at UTS is completely different to that proposed in the UNSW3+ model. Under the UTS system, there are 3 teaching periods of length 11 weeks, where the expected course load is 12 per annum. This model would definitely be stressful on the students, especially since it is 4 courses over a 11 week term. Upon inquiry from students at UTS what we recognized as the failure of this system lies within the fact that a very few courses are offered in the extended summer term. Hence despite university being in session students wouldn’t necessarily be studying simply because relevant courses aren’t offered over the summer term.

If I were to draw an analogy. Stating the UNSW3+ model will fail because the UTS model failed would be no different to saying that Australia’s poor performance in the recent cricket test series against Sri Lanka implies that the Wallabies will also lose to the Sri Lankan rugby team. Which sounds like complete bullshit, because how can the performance of the Australian cricket team imply anything about the Wallabies? Just like cricket and rugby are two completely different sports, the UNSW3+ and the UTS models are completely different. One’s failure does not determine the others success.

Internship Opportunities

Under the existing university system, all students look for internships over the southern hemisphere summer. This creates a massive bottleneck since companies can only offer so much within that short time period, and the number of students looking for these opportunities are is so large that there’s an extremely fierce competition for the few available work placements. Specifically students looking for such placements overseas would realise that these opportunities are offered over the northern hemisphere summer ( which falls exactly within semester 1 under the current system), hence a student can not take part in these industry placements unless they decide to defer a semester and extend their study period. Under the proposed UNSW3+ model, a student can simply take 1 trimester off at any time of the year at any point in their degrees, do an internship and not extend their study period.

The downside to the 3+ model is that unless companies in Australia begin to offer year round internships, the positive outcomes of the model might not be fully reached.  

How the student body was misinformed.

The student body is near unanimously against the 3+ plan, yet as mentioned before, they have been misinformed. The party responsible for this misinformation is the SRC of 2016. The 2016 SRC was the principal body voicing out against the proposal. Yet as student leaders, they failed to present both sides of the story.

They failed to show the pros and the cons of the system, rather allowed the student body to assume the system would end up a failure like that at UTS.

By sparking up the student body, the SRC essentially severed the possibility of beginning a constructive dialogue on the trimester system between the administration and student body. We believe that the role of the student leaders in the SRC is not to decide if a certain proposal is good or bad. Rather their role would be to engage with the students and create a dialogue. Clearly with the trimester proposal, there has been no dialogue. Only a protest.

Will this really happen?

Right now it does seem like UNSW is going to move towards a trimester model starting in 2019. It has clearly been outlined as one of the main goals of the Scientia Educational Experience which is part of the UNSW 2025 Strategy.  Bluntly rejecting such a prospect doesn’t seem to be advantageous to anyone because as outlined above there are many advantages to trimesters. However, there are many legitimate concerns and a lot of uncertainty around how a trimester system would affect the general welfare of students. There is certainly a need for more clarity around the matter before we can reach a final conclusion about the issue.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Bree

    November 6, 2016 at 6:50 pm

    I agree with some of what you said but also disagree with quite a lot. You’re totally right in that both sides aren’t really being presented, but I would say that the uni is failing to do so as much as the SRC is. I don’t understand how you think that fitting 13 weeks of assignments (we have 13 teaching weeks, not 12, I know 2 of them are half weeks but UNSW says on all their things “13 teaching weeks” so) into 10 weeks will not be more stressful, especially without a midsem break? I’m not sure how you think the workload won’t be increased, as we will have 4 weeks less to learn the content (I’m including mid-sem break here, because let’s be honest, it’s rarely a break), and please, I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on that – maybe it’s a degree difference thing, but I’m curious?

    Also, I’m not quite sure how you can suggest that “taking a trimester off” to do an internship won’t negatively impact your degree – most degrees have compulsory courses, and most of those have prerequisites, so unless you think the uni will start to offer specialised courses more than once (some courses only run once every 2 years, even), taking a trimester off simply won’t be possible without extending the degree. Really, people might be able to take the 2nd one off to go overseas for an internship, which would be great for some, I agree, but that’s hardly “any time of the year”, and I also think that the prerequisite thing is a big deal. Even people who fail a course like Physics 1A or Maths 1A often have to have their plan pushed back, and they’re offered every semester INCLUDING summer, what about people who miss a course because of the internship? Also, you forgot to mention the cost – going overseas for an internship isn’t possible for most people I know.

    I do agree with what you said about everyone pointing to the UTS model as proof of failure – it’s incredibly annoying because you’re totally right, it’s totally different, thought I am not sure how UNSW would spread the courses out – I doubt they’d be offering things more than they do now but I do believe they’d spread the courses out better, with maybe of the 5 compulsory courses for a year, 2 of them in the first 2 trimesters and 1 in the last, maybe? Who knows. Either way, people screaming “But UTS failed!” is silly.

    Finally though, I would like to know, do you think it’s a problem that UNSW has failed to publicly release the results of the initial survey? I mean, it is in fact available on the staff webpages though, where it shows that only 28% of respondents wanted trimesters. (37% voted stay the same, 15% voted for “option 1” and 20% for “option 2”, 28% for trimesters (“option 3”), which where they get their “63% of people wanted change!” thing from, even though more people wanted to stay with the current one than 2 of the other options combined.)

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