A matter of degrees


I’m about to graduate and this thought scares me a lot. It just doesn’t seem right: last semester I hit the credit point limit on my economics degree from Sydney University and I can’t believe how little I have learnt about the subject. It’s a disappointment that I think is shared by many students upon completion of their undergraduate degrees from Australian universities. Is that all we get? The simple truth is there could be so much more. Not just because of the limited government funding and all the usual hullabaloo about over-crowded lecture halls, students being forced into part-time work, falling contact hours, and so on. But also because the university itself seems unconcerned with encouraging a decent standard of academic attainment.

The biggest failing of Sydney University is the incredibly low criteria it sets for gaining a degree. The sad reality is that the university doesn’t expect much from its students, and the consequence is that most of us then live up to this ‘do the bare minimum’ stereotype.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at The Australian

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at The Australian

Take the system of assessment. I can only write of my experiences, which are limited to the Faculty of Economics and Business. A typical course is eight credit points, where a credit point is supposed to equate to ‘either 750-1000 words in a major assessment task, one hour of examination, or a twenty minute presentation,’ but that is the exception, not the rule. Mostly it’s a mid-semester test or two, with maybe an essay, followed by a two-hour exam at the end of semester. With only three subjects, this hardly compares to the workload thrust upon students in Year 12. Most people I know found the volume of work required at university to be a big step down from the HSC, when surely this is exactly the time that education should be taking a step up? Unlike high school there is no system of continuous assessment at university. And there is no real expectation from tutors that any more than a couple of students in a class of thirty will have done the weekly readings.

The problem is compounded by the substantial weighting given to the final examination. The biggest flaw with making this exam count for 50 per cent and greater is that students don’t receive feedback on their major assessment for the semester. Since the papers are not returned, it’s pretty hard to know what you got right and what you didn’t. And that means you’re not going to gain much from having sat the exam.

Very few courses build on assumed knowledge, so there’s no real incentive to master a topic. In fact, in a semester that is already ridiculously short, often course work repeats itself from semester to semester, as a lack of consultation between academics means the same material is covered ad nauseam in some departments. I think I managed to quote from the same chapter of the same book in four consecutive semesters of ‘Government’.

Other universities in Sydney, like many of their overseas counterparts, let subjects run over two semesters. In my faculty at Sydney University this is a distant dream. Instead, complex subjects are jammed into thirteen short weeks. Cut short by the inevitable introductory and revision classes, mid-semester exams, public holidays and so on, you are left with maybe ten weeks of actual learning. Not much, really.

But the ultimate insult is the credit point system. The university administration strictly monitors course enrolments to ensure students don’t ever pass what is in all reality already a meagre limit, stifling any culture of learning, and ensuring that it is near impossible to change a choice of major after the end of first year. More than anything, students’ frustration with credit point limits is a reflection of how little they feel they are getting out of those few courses they are allowed to take.

Lastly, a pet hate of mine: plagiarism. In my degree I heard a lot of earnest words from lecturers on the academic dishonesty of plagiarism. Every course guide issued a warning; every assessment notice contained with it the threat of failure for those caught cheating. So concerned were the lecturers that I even remember electronically submitting assignments to an online cop . And yet, every lecturer I had engaged in a form of ‘plagiarism’ that was every bit as destructive to the culture of learning at the university as anything done by my peers “ that is, by rehashing the same course materials year after year. As a rule, most courses hadn’t changed much from previous years and the exams were based almost exclusively on the content of past papers.

Go to the library and you could find out pretty much exactly what to expect when the big exam day rolled around. The result is unsurprising: students pass down summary notes from year to year that make reading the readings – or indeed any critical thought of your own – unnecessary. It’s a terrible system, but the university can hardly blame the students, who wouldn’t be able to get away with it if teaching staff put more time into renewing courses and assessments.

In saying this I do not mean to devalue the contribution of my lecturers. My experience was that almost all were intelligent, hard-working, and dedicated. Yet there seems to be a general culture at the university that does not expect them to stretch their students. Maybe it’s because so many people attend university these days that they simply can’t afford to risk failing half the course. Maybe it’s just easier this way. Regardless, it shouldn’t be allowed to continue. Sydney University should be a place that challenges students. It should leave them enriched and exhausted from the experience, not feeling like they should have been made to do more.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.