Recently in Ontario, there’s been discussion about shifting businesses to a four-day work week model. At the Liberal party’s annual general meeting on October 17, Ontario Liberal leader Steven Del Duca announced that if he is elected in June 2022, his party will institute a pilot project to assess the effectiveness of the shorter work week and determine whether we may see it implemented province-wide in the future.
This push for a shorter work week is in part due to the evolving values Ontarians developed during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic brought numerous changes to the daily lives of many people, including the emphasis on striking a healthy work-life balance. While the effectiveness of the four-day work week policy is still up for debate, there are many studies in favour of the initiative.
In one study, Iceland held a four-year experiment from 2015 to 2019 with its public sector workers in which it introduced a shorter work week. It was found that the quality of working life and productivity of the workers improved. In another study at Microsoft Japan in 2019, productivity increased by roughly 40 per cent once a four-day work week was temporarily implemented.
Although there have been studies on the impact of a shorter work week among workers, there has been little research in terms of how a shortened work week could potentially be introduced at the post-secondary level and what repercussions students would face. This is an increasingly important question considering the round-the-clock work culture of university and college students.
Although models for a shorter school week vary depending on the institution, the general idea is that it would see all the classes currently scheduled on Fridays instead be spread among the remaining days of the week. For research faculty and administration, the hours they would typically work on Fridays would also just be spread out among the remaining days. Thus, while the week gets shorter, each individual day would get longer — bringing its own set of implications with it.
At the moment, universities such as the University of Mobile in Alabama, the University of Akron, and Eastern Florida State College in the US have implemented their own versions of a four-day school week, and each of them have experienced different benefits.
The University of Mobile implemented a 35-hour work week for faculty and administration, with classes scheduled between Mondays and Thursdays. However, professional staff rotate their days off to ensure students still have support throughout the week. Eastern Florida State College has held a similar policy for roughly a decade now and has found that its energy costs have decreased by $474,000, and its administration sick hours have decreased by 50 per cent. In addition, the university has reduced staff turnover by 44 per cent, which has saved it the time and resources necessary for training new workers.
Despite the many benefits of a shorter work week for faculty, one drawback is how it manages faculty workload and burnout. Their workload would hardly decrease if the policy is implemented, but the time that they have to complete it would diminish. Important elements such as lab tests would still take the allotted number of days to be completed. Hence, the amount of work that the faculty faces will merely be intensified with the rearrangement of work hours.
Nonetheless, while Eastern Florida State College has demonstrated the many benefits of the policy, these advantages are largely geared toward the faculty and administration. Their policy has provided little evidence demonstrating why the policy would aid students. Although the money saved on energy costs could be reinvested into classrooms, university spaces, and lab equipment — positively impacting students — there are doubts as to whether the policy would actually benefit students’ ability to learn.
For instance, while students would have more downtime to relax and destress, studies have demonstrated that students comprehend and retain information better if they study more frequently for shorter amounts of time. A four-day school week would do just the opposite — increase class time and decrease the frequency of classes. The heavier schedules they would entail also pose a greater risk to students burning out, as they would have more intensive deadlines and less flexibility in their schedules.
However, one benefit of a shorter school week is the increased accessibility of classes. Student athletes often have games or tournaments scheduled over the weekend and, as a result, have to miss their Friday classes. Similarly, students often miss classes due to conflicting appointments. With another free day, they would be able to schedule their appointments so that they don’t miss class, thus increasing their learning potential. In addition, commuter students would be able to reduce the amount of time they spend in transportation to get to campus, allowing them to be more productive and save money.
Another possible model to consider while weighing the benefits of a shorter school week is that of the Cristo Rey Network of private Roman Catholic high schools. At the high schools, students are offered a position at a work-study program on their otherwise free Friday. With this opportunity, students are able to pay back their loans and save up for tuition, thus reducing their future student loan debt.
There is no doubt that there are convincing arguments on both sides. Considering the policy as a whole, a shorter work week is an advantageous model primarily from the perspective of the faculty and administration. However, from the perspective of a student, a shorter school week poses far greater drawbacks than it does benefits.
Therefore, at least until further evidence supporting the model surfaces, universities shouldn’t follow the business world and should instead retain the five-day school week.
Nina Uzunović is a first-year social sciences student at Trinity College. They are an Associate Comment Editor at The Varsity.