The AMS is making a final push for fall reading break. Will it work?

Update February 5 at 3:08 p.m: This piece has been updated to include Holmes’s response to the EUS’s statement.

The AMS is launching a last-minute — and potentially final — push to implement a fall reading break.

A society-run survey has collected over 6,000 student responses on how to implement a fall reading break, which the AMS will soon be taking to the UBC Vancouver Senate to make a case for extending the Thanksgiving long weekend into a week-long reading break.

If they succeed, it will be the culmination of years of pleas from students that a break in the fall term is crucial for their mental health.

“We’re advocating for a full week because it’s been clear that that is what students want and have been pushing for,” said AMS VP Academic and University Affairs (VPAUA) Max Holmes.

The survey pitched three potential options for implementing the break, all of which involved shortening the examination period.

The most popular option — which the society will vote on endorsing at its February 6 Council meeting — will compress the exam period to 14 days. This means that 24 per cent of students would have more than one exam within 24 hours, compared to 8 per cent currently.

The number of students who qualify for exam hardship — three exams within a 24-hour period — would not change in that scenario, according to the survey.

But the Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS) is already calling those figures and the survey’s itself into question, adding doubt on how feasible this final push would be.

A long time coming

Fall reading break has been debated for so long that virtually no one remembers when it wasn’t an issue.

“Since I’ve been around, in 2014, this has always been discussed,” said Jakob Gattinger, a student senator and Board of Governors member. He was also the interim VPAUA in 2017 between the resignation of Daniel Lam and fall by-election of Holmes.

According to The Ubyssey’s archives, the first official call for a break was in an editorial published in 1991. As schools across Canada began implementing fall breaks in the late 2000s, it quickly morphed from a far-out fantasy to something students demanded — in Senate, in AMS campaigns and in numerous Ubyssey editorials.

But the issue has dragged on for years.

In 2015, student senators rallied and pushed for a break as a top priority: then-AMS VPAUA Jenna Omassi predicted a break would be implemented by 2017. But as Senators rotate — few remain for more than a year — the effort has invariably stopped, started and failed.

“The uptake of it has kind of varied,” said Gattinger. “What has been a constant is that people put it on their campaign platforms, including myself, and frankly I think it is something that students are certainly interested in.”

The major complication is the number of teaching days at UBC. The university has the second-lowest number of instructional days in the country and taking more days off several accredited programs, like engineering, creates debates about whether those programs should be left out of a reading break. Options posed by the current survey were designed specifically so programs wouldn’t lose accreditation.

Even when students were able to agree, they had to maneuver through the Senate, a notoriously overburdened and slow-moving body.

“The truth is, they only have so much ability to uptake a few different things at any point in time,” said Gattinger. “For that reason, in certain years this has sort of taken a back seat.”

A final push

The AMS’s latest effort is a blitz after years of waiting. But will it be enough?

Holmes held a town hall on implementing the break in November and even promised it would be done at the AMS’s annual general meeting.

But Senate Academic Policy Committee Chair Dr. Paul Harrison, who has worked closely with Holmes on the break, has cautioned that his counterpart’s rhetoric might be too optimistic. He and Gattinger believe a break could be possible — but they caution it’s far from a sure thing.

“Any proposals for a 2019 break would have to go through another round of consultation with faculty and staff,” explained Harrison, “but by that time, we’re almost into the end of term and the academic schedule has to be set in February.”

Holmes chalked Harrison’s concerns up to “bureaucratic excuses.”

“When you look at the academic calendar, there is nothing that stops us from amending the academic calendar in March,” said Holmes. “We shouldn’t be putting a bureaucratic argument above students’ mental health interests.”

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There have also been concerns that federal plans to institute a statutory holiday in memory of survivors of the Indian Residential School System would make a fall break more difficult to implement.

Holmes explained that his proposals still provide a three-year running average of 62 teaching days, which is one more than the 61 necessary for programs like engineering to remain accredited.

“That holiday, we’ve made sure, would not affect our models,” said Holmes.

What might be more realistic is extending the holiday break between terms — something all parties agree on.

“The flights that international students and so many people had to pay to get back on January 2 is ridiculous,” said Holmes. “This is something that faculty, staff and students have been asking for for years.”

But some AMS councillors worry the survey won’t make a strong enough case.

It garnered over 6,000 responses — a testament to how popular the idea of the fall reading break is — but the questions and results weren’t vetted by a third party or a marketing firm.

“I’m going to tell you right now, that’s the first problem you're going to have,” Gattinger said at the January 9 AMS Council meeting. “I’d be happy to support spending a little bit of money on this to do it the right way.”

Behind the scenes, the process was just as rushed. Gattinger says the Student Senate Caucus was told there would be no fall reading break as recently as December.

The survey was released to students the day after it was shown to Council, where some councillors worried its proposals to shorten the December exam period would disproportionately affect different faculties.

The Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS) has already slammed the survey’s findings as misleading. In a statement, the EUS board noted the increase in exam frequency would disproportionately affect engineers, who take more credits and have more exams than most other faculties. That wasn’t reflected in the survey.

“The potential for increased exam period stress may exceed the possible benefit to student wellbeing that the proposed break would offer,” reads the statement.

In the same statement, the EUS also questioned why the AMS’s advocacy committee — which is almost entirely filled by faculty of arts students — would be the one to decide the society’s stance. Only 44 per cent of engineering students who responded to the survey were in favour of shortening the brief break before the exam period, compared to 57 per cent in the faculty of arts.

In a response to the EUS, Holmes clarified that the entirety of AMS Council would vote on which position to endorse.

Three-quarters of the total respondents voted in favour of the break.

The same statement notes that Holmes, as both a senator and the VPAUA, has a dual role and “is unable to run unbiased consultation for the AMS.”

At the January 9 AMS Council meeting, Holmes said it’s a chance the society has to take.

“My job is to be the political insider for students at UBC, and to understand how to apply pressure and get things done,” he said.

The break will be further discussed at the February 6 AMS Council meeting.