Are Australian Degrees Valued Less?

Deciding on a postgraduate programme is difficult for everyone, but for prospective students in countries like Australia I think it’s a much harder decision because of our geographical isolation and relative lack of opportunities (for medieval studies) in the country. I personally had to make that decision this year, and I can’t honestly say that I’m completely confident in my choice to start a PhD at Sydney uni next year.

Let’s briefly look at what Australia has on offer for postgraduate medieval studies at dedicated centres. In Sydney there is the Medieval and Early Modern Centre at the University of Sydney. Caveat: As this is where I did my BA (Hons) and where I plan to commence postgrad next year, my knowledge and experience is mostly limited to Sydney. While I do love Sydney uni there are definitely problems: there are limited supervisors available; there isn’t much in the way of organised training for students, e.g. in palaeography etc; and there are no postgrad coursework options and due to the restricted funding they no longer have an interdisciplinary undergraduate programme either – students have to major in either history or English.

uwa logoOn the other side of the country, in Perth, the University of Western Australia has the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies. The CMEMS is home to Parergon – the journal of the Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies – as well as the online journal CERAE. They offer both coursework and research postgrad options: a Master of Arts by coursework in Medieval and Early Modern Studies, a Master of Arts by research, and a Doctor of Philosophy.

unimelb logoBack on the east coast there are two universities in Melbourne who have dedicated medieval studies programmes: the University of Melbourne and Monash University. Undergraduate students can major in ancient, medieval and early modern studies through the Ancient, Mediveval and Early Modern Centre at the University of Melbourne. Postgraduate options include  inter-departmental coursework (though only certificates or diplomas; no masters), a Master of Arts by research and a Doctor of Philosophy.

monash logo

The Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Monash University offers an undergraduate major but does not have any interdisciplinary postgraduate options. Postgraduate students interested in medieval studies would need to go through either English or history. Monash is unique because they also have a centre at Prato, Italy at which their students can study.

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The ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (Europe 1100-1800) was established in 2011 and “works to create and foster links between a team of pre-eminent Australian humanities researchers, a network of international experts and institutions, and a set of industry partners (performing arts institutions, art galleries, media).” The Centre’s headquarters is at the University of Western Australia, and has nodes at the universities of Adelaide, Melbourne, Queensland and Sydney. The Centre’s research has created both postgrad and postdoc positions in Australian universities for medieval scholars.

I don’t feel like I need to tell you what there is in the UK/Europe/America. Most of us are fairly familiar with what programmes there are, and as you can see there is a lot more choice over the pond. Now limited choice in Australia is one matter, but that shouldn’t mean that the degree that you do receive here is worse than one you could get elsewhere. But that is exactly the thing that most Australians seem to think.*

When deciding between postgraduate study here or overseas, I was encouraged by everyone – my honours supervisor, family, friends, colleagues (and anyone else who cared to put their 2 cents in) – that I should go overseas; that because I excelled academically I should not stay in Australia. Once I had decided to start a PhD here in 2015 most people expressed disappointment, and some questioned my decision. Few wholeheartedly supported me. Fortunately, my (previous and future) supervisor was supportive of both decisions. As staying in Australia was really my second choice and something I had to reconcile myself with, people’s reactions compounded my feeling that maybe I’ve doomed myself academically.

Even considering that non-academic reasons, such as the value of living overseas, are surely part of the reason for encouraging me to study overseas it still seems that there the underlying collective belief is that Australian degrees aren’t as valuable. It feels like the message I’ve received from the majority, no matter how unintentional, is that I won’t be on the same level as a graduate from an overseas institution, that Australian degrees are not valued; that they are worth less than their international counterparts.

So the question is, why do people think this? Do we, as Australians, really think so little of our own universities and their postgraduate degrees? I think the answer lies in the love of prestige, the importance placed on successful careers, and in the case of medieval studies the relative lack of opportunity.

Prestige

Studying a degree outside of your home country has a certain amount of prestige attached to it, even more so if you go to somewhere like Oxford/Cambridge. The lure of university (and/or supervisor) prestige is very strong; I know if I were to study overseas Cambridge would be my first choice. Mind you, Sydney uni is not exactly a small institution – it’s a very prestigious Australian university and part of the group of eight. Even if you were to go abroad to a less prestigious university, it may be a case of the grass looking greener in the Northern hemisphere.

University_of_Sydney.svgAustralians have measured their worth and judged themselves against western countries since European invasion and colonisation – maybe it has to do with being a settlement of convicts. The historical angst of Australian universities about their relative merit is embodied in Sydney uni’s motto:  “sidere mens eadem mutato” (literal translation from USYD’s website: “The constellation is changed, the disposition is the same.”) Basically, from the beginning we have wanted to emulate Western higher education traditions and to prove that we are just as good as them. I think we are still – unconsciously perhaps – concerned with how our universities measure against their international counterparts; this concern crops up in the obsession with university rankings.

Considering the value we place on prestige, it’s not surprising that people encouraged me to chose the most prestigious option.

Career First and the Job Market

While I’m not studying to get a particular job, I do of course want to find enjoyable employment once I’m finished my PhD. This whole ‘getting a job’ business is one of the reasons why a degree at a prestigious university is valued. Some assume that receiving a degree from a top university will increase your chances of getting a job.

There are a few problems with this assumption. The job market is highly competitive and there aren’t enough jobs, let along secure long-term positions or funding, across the higher education sector. So yes, while some hiring decision-makers might be attracted to applicants who have completed a degree at an internationally prestigious university, it’s certainly not the only factor and doesn’t guarantee you’ll be hired. Unfortunately, in many cases people have unrealistic expectations regarding the job market and reiterating false narratives to prospective graduates doesn’t help.

Secondly, even if a degree at a more prestigious and better networked university would further my career, the fact is there is more to my life than a career. Indeed, I don’t actually plan on a life-long career in academia. There is, of course, nothing wrong with prioritising your career, but it’s harmful to push others to do so. It’s hard, both financially and mentally (as I will go into below), to pursue your career above all else; especially so in academia where extensive travel is required and there is a culture of poor work/life balance.

Limited Choice

A final reason why, at least in Medieval Studies, to go overseas is the real lack of choice and opportunity in Australia, as discussed previously. To me this is the best reason to go overseas and the primary one that influenced my desire to go.

[Forgotten] Reasons to Stay

What people forget when they emphasise studying overseas are the very reasons why I can not do so at this time: the practical matters of funding and logistics, as well as moving away from support networks.

Funding and Logistics

Money, or lack thereof, is the number one reason that I need to start my PhD in Australia next year instead of going overseas. Unless I got funding, which is competitive and hard to come by, I simply could not afford to move overseas. There is no way my parents could afford to pay for me to study overseas, or even to partially support me. Even if I did a degree in somewhere like Iceland where they have fantastic Old Norse MAs and free tuition, I would still need approx. $25,000 AUD for living costs for the year. If I were to go to the UK it would be double that or more to cover tuition costs as well. If I were to go overseas I would want to do an MA first, instead of going straight into a PhD and it’s very difficult to get funding for an MA. So really, unless you or your family are wealthy, or you’re lucky enough to a scholarship – then it’s not going to happen.

Along with funding is the logistical problem of moving overseas, it’s a huge move and one that most people I’ve spoken to seem to minimalise. I would need to do something with all my stuff, as well as probably acquire new stuff there. I also live with my partner and we are committed to continue living together so we would need to co-ordinate two people moving over there, getting appropriate visas and finding him a job.

Support

As a student with a disability** having support available is exceedingly important for me. Here, in Australia, I have easy access to my family and friends; I already have a great relationship with my supervisor, who is also very supportive and understanding; I have a relationship with my primary doctor, my psychiatrist and other health professionals I regularly need to see. My partner is my greatest source of support, especially in day-to-day matters when I’m going through a particularly bad episode. But just as he supports me in my goals, I need to support him in his which include starting to work in his industry as he is finishing his degree this semester. It’s not fair if I demand that we move overseas when we can’t afford it and he would like some more work experience first. I realise I could go alone, however I honestly don’t think I could manage without that support especially when the rest of my network would still be in Australia.

Of course you can build a new support network, make new friends and all the rest of it, but for me at least that’s very difficult. I think a lot of people undervalue having a strong support network and overestimate how easily one can create a new one.

Access to the support I require is also linked to money. I have very high medical expenses from a number of health problems I have as well as just getting generally sick a lot. My costs would be even higher if I was in another country, since here a fair bit is covered by Medicare and/or my private health insurance and most of my medicines are subsidised by the Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme. In fact, most of my medical requirements would be unaffordable, considering I already have to skip some appointments because of cash flow problems.

I could go on so much more about this, but I think I’ve covered most of the main points of the difficulties of Australian students deciding on a postgraduate degree. In answer to my original question: yes, I think postgraduate medieval studies degrees from Australian universities are valued less. I know I subconsciously believe that and still have trouble consciously disagreeing with that. In fact, the reasons I’ve given for staying in Australia have nothing to do with quality of our degrees, but rather with the problems of going overseas. Part of the reason I started this blog was to highlight how Australian Medievalists, including those who stay in the country, are quality researchers and teachers. Just because we have studied in Australia does not mean that our degrees or work should be less valued.

What do you think? Do we value Australian degrees less than say British, American, European or Canadian degrees from prestigious universities?

*I’m not sure what international opinion in on the matter.

**I have anxiety disorders and depression (on a side note this is why I post rather infrequently).

Some further reading about academia, moving and life:

Moving Costs InstitutionsAvoiding the Empathy Trap 2Global Academics and Historians du Terroir

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