The academic quarter

Traditionally, lectures start 15 minutes after the hour. The following definition of the academic quarter is given in Svensk Uppslagsbok, Vol A – Apostat, 1947:  ‘the 1/4 of an hour that passes after the appointed hour before lectures and the like start at Swedish universities, by tradition.’

When did the academic quarter begin?

‘By tradition.’ Well, precisely when this practice began is impossible to determine. But it came about no doubt because students generally did not own pocket watches. But in the old university towns of Uppsala and Lund, virtually all the students lived close to the city’s cathedral.  So when they heard its bells ring eight times, they knew it was time to leave home and would still make it to the start of their lectures 15 minutes later.

Debate about the academic quarter

At Uppsala University, for as long as anyone can remember, it has just been assumed that students and lecturers will count on the academic quarter.  But in the 1960s, those with a fondness for order began to stir in protest. On 23 September 1965, statistician Erland von Hofsten (subsequently Erland Hofsten) wrote to the Swedish Higher Education Authority requesting that the Authority eliminate these ‘nuisances’. The matter was circulated for comment to all of Sweden’s higher education institutions. At Uppsala University, the Office of the Vice-Chancellor responded tersely that it intended to ask the heads of department – ‘when it is deemed necessary’ – to tell the students what to expect. A refreshingly frosty response one might say!  The Swedish Higher Education Authority contented itself with drawing attention to the ‘desirability’ of abolishing the academic quarter in its pronouncement on 27 May 1966, The Authority also announced at the time that this practice was not being applied at the universities of Lund and Umeå, nor at the Karolinska Institutet nor the Farmaceutiska Institutet (now the Faculty of Pharmacy at Uppsala University).

But there was to be another, tougher offensive, mounted 16 years later. On 12 June, 1981, a mature age (now deceased) doctoral student at a humanities department in Uppsala wrote to the Office of the Vice-Chancellor on the matter again. He could find nothing positive about the academic quarter. It originated, he said, from a time when academics considered themselves ‘to be so high and mighty and 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 chosen 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. Nevertheless, it was important that if a lecture was to start at precisely 10 AM, this should be stated by writing ‘10 on the dot’ or ‘10 precisely’.

The complainant was not satisfied with this response. He immediately filed a complaint with the Office of the Chancellor of Justice (JK) requesting an investigation into punctuality at Sweden’s universities. JK found no grounds for doing so and dismissed the case. Not to be put off, at the beginning of the autumn semester the proposer of the motion came back again and demanded ‘faced with possible legal action’, that the Office of the Vice-Chancellor should define what it meant by the ‘Uppsalian University tradition’ and state the legal grounds on which it invoked this tradition. Martin H:son Holmdahl then handed down a Solomon-like judgement (1981-09-25). The Office of the Vice-Chancellor announced that although the academic quarter would no longer apply, the ‘old tradition of lectures starting 15 minutes after the hour’ would be retained. Consequently, in the future times would be written as “0815”, etc. “However, if in exceptional circumstances a lecture is to start at a different time, it should be indicated by four numbers (e.g. 0800).”

But the storms surrounding the academic quarter also attracted attention outside Uppsala. A columnist in Dagens Nyheter, one of Sweden’s major national daily newspapers, wrote on the topic and quoted from the decision of the Office of the Vice-Chancellor, adding the following reflection:

But the academic, implied, bureaucratically unmotivated but in the academic mind well-motivated, edifying little quarter hour is to be abolished because woe betide! that a student might waste a single second pondering on life and existence while waiting for their professor to come ambling along and provide the answers to such mysteries.

The academic quarter today

Finally, in 1981 a decision was made that still applies today. For example, a researcher at the Department of History defended his doctoral thesis, as stated in the notification of the date of defence of a doctoral thesis, on Wednesday, 6th June 2006, at 10.15 AM in lecture room X. If it had been in Stockholm, he could have started at 10. The Uppsalian University tradition lives on still, though in a slightly different guise.

Last modified: 2021-01-21