We’re better off not transferring degrees

To transfer or not transfer—the ultimate question of (undergrad) life

Image: USyd 'Sydney Life' Blog

Where is your degree taking you?

University is meant to be where you find a purpose in life, but if things don’t work out, you’re told to take comfort in the option of ‘transferring courses’. But what if transferring just gives the indecisive a reason to aimlessly flounder for longer?

Feeling uncertain about your degree is natural. According to Universities Australia’s Higher Education and Research Figures, one out of five students does not complete the course they originally enrolled in, either transferring to another course or dropping out. While there is a high retention rate—according to the Department of Education, 80 per cent of students complete uni—one third of students still takes longer than six years to complete one degree.

Students are fickle creatures. The Longitudinal Survey on Australian Youths conducted by the Australian Council for Educational Research found that the most susceptible to course change are full-time students who commenced tertiary education immediately after Year 12. It may be a failure to cope with the transition to tertiary education, where  high expectations for uni are often crushed, and workloads turn out to be unmanageably high. And there is data to back this up: the QILT 2017 Student Experience survey, 21.6 per cent of university undergraduate students were dissatisfied with the coursework overall.

Average amount of years to complete postgraduate coursework, postgraduate research and undergraduate degrees respectively. Source: University of Sydney

Of course, many students transfer into a course which they initially wanted but did not get the marks for earlier. But there will always be those who’ll continually transfer because they believe that the course matching their interests is just one degree-change away.

USyd recognizes this fluidity and encourages students to “make the most out of [transfer] opportunities” and “shift careers with changing interests”. According to a University spokesperson, the Bachelor of Arts has the highest number of students transferring into it every year—a trend that has existed since 2014.

Yet, transferring is costly. Spending more time at USyd brings more money into the university’s coffers. What’s more, fees increase annually, meaning that students may pay exponentially more the longer they are at uni. The stigma of staying longer at uni and the stress of not finding a desirable also weighs heavily on the indecisive.

Students are persuaded to transfer by the appeal of better career prospects. Rather than being stuck in a meaningless job, they believe it is better to find a purposeful degree at uni. However, finding that purpose could take forever, and a large number of students don’t end up applying their degree in the career they end up in.

In fact, according to a 2017 DET survey, 41.1 per cent of undergraduates in all study areas said the skills and knowledge they received at university, was unrelated to the full-time job they were employed in.

Frequently, we hear about success stories, where students claim transferring courses was the best decision they have ever made.

For instance, one student who began with a Bachelor of Psychology at UOW in 2014, then transferred into a Bachelor of Nutrition and Dietetics, and later settled with a Bachelor of Arts, told Honi:

“I liked the coursework [in my first degree] up to an extent, before it got too scientific. My current degree is much better, and more meaningful.”

Transfers by year
Number of completed or approved transfers in undergraduate degrees per study year, as opposed to transfer requests. Source: University of Sydney

The failure stories are swept under the rug. In hindsight, many students reflect that their first choice was actually better. It’s not surprising that we are directionless. Having too many course options—98 undergraduate courses in total as from 2019—can dazzle us and make us lose sight of our genuine capabilities, if we are not properly informed on what each course entails.

Take one of the ex-students Honi spoke to, for instance. This student transferred into three different courses across eight years, including a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Commerce, a Bachelor of Psychology and a Bachelor of Science (Honours). When they finally graduated in 2015, they wound up with an admin job.

“I have all this extra knowledge from the courses I took, which I guess could be useful. You never know. But if I had known earlier about what I wanted, I wouldn’t have spent all those years at uni. My other friends all graduated, found jobs, while I was still finishing my Bachelor degree with Honours.”

“Working as an admin was not what I had in mind once I graduated. It’s unrelated and I’m not directly using the skills from the courses I had taken. But, it’s good pay, and I guess when the right job comes, I’ll take it.”

Another student who transferred from Bachelor of Education (Primary) into Bachelor of Arts (Media and Communications) said, “Now that I’m doing the Media Degree, I actually think I prefer Education. I might just transfer back into Education next year.”

The whole concept of transfer as a privilege may be flawed. It gives students short-term comfort that there are pathways to get into a desirable course and subsequent career, but it can be a burden for the indecisive. It seduces them with a false illusion of time to find a purpose in life, and an excuse to easily give up. Perhaps instead, students should develop resilience and learn to stick something out to the bitter end.