Academic quarter

Clock with Roman numerals showing quarter past one

In the past, it went without saying that a lecture would begin at quarter past the hour, even if the timetable said 10 o’clock, for example. This tradition became known as the academic quarter. The academic quarter survives to this day, though we now always write the exact time in the timetable, in notices and so on.

When did the tradition begin?

Exactly when the academic quarter became a fixture of student life in Uppsala is impossible to determine. However, the phenomenon presumably came about because the students did not own pocket watches. But in the old university towns Uppsala and Lund, virtually all students lived in the vicinity of the cathedral. So when they heard the cathedral bell ring, they knew it was time to leave home and still be in time for their lectures.

First attempt to eliminate the quarter

In Uppsala, it was always understood that students and lecturers would take the academic quarter into account. However, in the 1960s some dissenting voices began to be heard. On 23 September 1965, the statistician Erland von Hofsten (later called Erland Hofsten) wrote to the Office of the Chancellor of the Swedish Universities (the forerunner of the Swedish Higher Education Authority) and demanded that the Chancellor do away with this ‘nuisance’.

The Chancellor solicited the views of universities and colleges of higher education on the matter. The Office of the Vice-Chancellor in Uppsala responded tersely that in cases where they deemed it necessary, the heads of department would inform the students of the rules. The Office of the Chancellor of the Swedish Universities contented itself with drawing attention on 27 May 1966 to the ‘desirability’ of abolishing the academic quarter but did not issue a decision on the matter.

Second attempt to eliminate the quarter led to modern rules

The question of the academic quarter was not settled once and for all. On 12 June 1981 a doctoral student in Uppsala wrote to the Office of the Vice-Chancellor that he saw nothing positive about the academic quarter. In his opinion, it stemmed from a time when academics considered themselves “to be so much above mere mortals that they could afford a superior disregard for such trifling matters as the clock and keeping time”. How would it be, the writer continued, if the trains did not depart on time and “thousands of people were left stranded and freezing on the platform, just because someone in the railways system had thought fit to keep the academic quarter?” He called on the Office of the Vice-Chancellor to intervene.

The response came at the beginning of July. The Vice-Chancellor pointed out that the academic quarter was firmly rooted in the “Uppsalian University tradition” and that no directives would be issued on the matter. However, he wrote, it was important that if a lecture was to start at precisely 10 o’clock, this should be stated by writing “10 on the dot” or “10 precisely”.

The complainant was not satisfied with this response. He filed a complaint with the Office of the Chancellor of Justice requesting an investigation of timekeeping at Sweden’s universities. The Office of the Chancellor of Justice found no grounds for doing so and dismissed the case. But the doctoral student refused to give up. At the beginning of the autumn semester he came back with a demand, “in view of possible legal action”, that the Office of the Vice-Chancellor define what was meant by the “Uppsalian University tradition” and clarify the statutory basis for this tradition.

The Vice-Chancellor at the time, Martin Henriksson Holmdahl, then issued a decision on 25 September 1981 that is still in effect. The Office of the Vice-Chancellor announced that the academic quarter would no longer be observed. However, the old tradition of starting lectures 15 minutes after the hour would live on. Consequently, from now on, everyone in the University was to write the exact time concerned, for example, 08:15. “If in exceptional circumstances a teaching session is to start at a different time, it should be indicated in four-digit form (e.g. 08:00).” For example, a doctoral student at the Department of Education defended his doctoral thesis, as stated in the notification of the date of defence, on Friday 2 June 2023, at 13:15 in lecture room X.