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The curious case of the compulsory elective

Are elective subjects worth the time, money and effort?

The University is giving you so many choices so you better be grateful and choose and also pay thousands of dollars while you're at it please. The University is giving you so many choices so you better be grateful and choose and also pay thousands of dollars while you're at it please.

With high rents, rising uni fees and ridiculous transport expenses, students in Sydney have had to become thriftier than ever before. Whether it’s ditching that extra latte or forgoing an avocado toast, frugality is a virtue in the tenth most expensive city in the world. Yet some of the most needless student expenses may be coming from our own degrees. It’s with a sense of frugality only possessed by the disillusioned, screwed over millennial that I ask: are elective subjects worth the money?

Realistically, electives  add little to a students’  academic qualifications—they don’t appear on students’ testamur after graduation and usually only provide  entry level knowledge of a topic unrelated to a student’s chosen major. Yet in a standard Bachelor of Arts degree, USyd students take a minimum of ten elective units over three years, making around 40% of their degree superfluous as far as major requirements go.

The University argues there are positives to taking elective units. Director of Education Strategy, Associate Professor Peter McCallum outlines the benefits electives have on maintaining high academic morale. Core units can be at times tedious, and studying  a different topic can break up  the monotony. In intensive degrees, it is often  nice to enrol in a ‘WAM booster’­—a less rigorous and thereby easier unit.

In spite of benefits, it’s questionable whether electives should be compulsory. They can have serious downsides for students, who don’t have the chance to assess whether the  extra cost is worth it.

First of all, money. Domestic students can expect to pay between $800 and $1400 per unit of study.

This adds up. Arts students doing one major and one minor will take around ten extra elective units. In a Bachelor of Commerce, there’s enough room for about six. Yet even doing six of the cheapest elective units will set you back $4,761.75; ten will blow this cost to almost $8000.

For international students, electives are far more expensive. As full-fee paying students, they pay a minimum of $4,600 per unit of study. Doing six electives adds up to $27,000.

Secondly, there’s wasted time. Some people get stuck in the university vortex their whole lives. Many like to finish as soon as possible.

A change in degree structure for Ben, a third year Commerce student, means his final semester capstone project has been replaced by a full time load of elective units, and nothing else. Ben would rather just get it over with: “I’d definitely prefer to finish uni over almost anything.”

So does the University benefit from students completing so many extra units?  The more units students take, the more money the University has at its disposal. But Associate Professor McCallum argues the economic gain is not the intention: “The aim [of electives] is to prepare students to make a significant contribution to society and to lead fulfilling lives.”

It’s a sentiment students do not entirely disown.  Despite Ben’s desire to complete his degree, he notes his electives have been valuable, allowing him to gain a “broad understanding of lots of different business areas”, while also pursuing his “passion for music … even when not studying a music degree.”

Importantly, the University does not set the number of units students are required to take. Credit point quotas are based on the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF),  national policy enforced by the Department of Education and Training.

Ultimately, electives may provide academic escapism and valuable inter-disciplinary experience, but their cost is high—especially for students without Commonwealth support. The question remains: If all the other needs of your degree are met, why are these units still mandatory?