Death of a degree: how the BA (Adv) (Hons) was mismanaged

Ben Brooks was lucky enough to enjoy his one year of the fraught Bachelor of Arts (Advanced) (Honours)

In 2014, the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences will bid farewell to one of its most controversial degree programs. Enrollments into the Bachelor of Arts (Advanced) (Honours) will be discontinued after a series of Faculty and student investigations found the degree to be untenable in its present form. It is worth reflecting, then, on how this experimental specialist degree was mismanaged into oblivion.

Logo of the Advanced Arts Students' Club

Logo of the Advanced Arts Students’ Club

The BA(Adv)(Hons) is an accelerated version of the conventional Bachelor of Arts. Students skip junior subjects, commence senior subjects immediately (whilst maintaining a mandatory Credit average), and undertake Honours in their third year. The ATAR cut-off for BA(Adv)(Hons) has always hovered around 98.55, making the degree an attractive alternative for high-achieving students inclined to the humanities. For many in the 98.55 ≤ x < 99.70 ATAR range, it can become a satisfying stepping stone into the combined Arts/Law program.

But for many others, the degree has proven frustrating. There are approximately 100 students enrolled at any given time, with about 35 new enrollees each year. Yet from 2010–2012, for instance, the degree sustained an estimated dropout rate of at least 24%. A case study by the Advanced Arts Students’ Club (AASC) surveyed almost half the 2011 intake, and found that only 34% were on track to completing their Honours thesis.

AASC was founded by students in 2009 to address many of the problems which continue to plague the degree today. Its initiatives included mentoring programs, essay-writing seminars, information resources and advocacy for BA(Adv)(Hons) students.

In a 2011 survey, students overwhelmingly reported that university administrators and academics alike were hostile to the BA(Adv)(Hons). One student took their enrollment form to a staff member to be entered manually (for reasons unknown, Advanced Arts is wholly administered on paper à la 1910). The staff member’s initial response was “oh, I hate this degree”.

Tutors, said others, were often indifferent to the fact that Advanced Arts students are essentially school leavers thrust into the middle of a degree. The schools of Government and Philosophy were reportedly particularly unsympathetic.

It seems to be a hostility born of confusion. AASC repeatedly advised the Faculty to raise awareness of the degree among administrative and academic staff. Yet students were repeatedly given misleading advice. At best, this was a nuisance. After a fruitful year plumbing the depths of Basque nationalism and Eliot’s The Waste Land, one administrator told me in no uncertain terms that I would have to study junior units over summer in order to transfer to law.

At worst, this advice ruined degrees. Some students who approached the Faculty were given recklessly ill-informed guidance. They have been trapped in unwanted majors, unwanted Honours, or in the degree itself with few prospects of transferring or changing. “Once you’ve survived the first year of Advanced Arts, it is very difficult trying to get out,” says one former AASC executive member. “You just have to hang on for dear life”.

The Honours year was another intimidating obstacle. Rachel Bailes, a current Co-President of AASC, says that by her third year, “I felt as though I had just begun finding my feet in the university context”. Graduating this year, she nevertheless felt “extremely daunted” by the prospect of Honours and thought it premature. Former executive member Rad Sappany agrees. ‘I think its ultimate downfall was that after two years of uni, you’re really just not ready for Honours. Two years of Latin would have left me grossly unprepared”. She transferred to Law after her first year.

The degree was particularly unsuited for economics or previously unstudied languages. The majority of students study English, with History, Government and Philosophy sharing the bulk of the remainder. For many of those students, skipping first year was not a problem, but it was difficult to familiarise themselves with university processes – everything from research methods to assessment policies to cover sheets, with only a single, overburdened Degree Director (our exceptional Chair of Poetry and Poetics, Professor Barry Spurr) and the AASC providing guidance.

The degree was thus bewildering rather than supportive and challenging. As AASC explained to the Faculty, “rather than exhibit their natural passion and talent for humanities, some students began to fall through the cracks”.

AASC offered many recommendations to improve student support, including more digestible subject information, tailored degree advice, and a greater emphasis on advanced research and student-staff interaction rather than mere acceleration. “Advanced programs in high schools have extension units and cohort-based education,” explains Bailes, “but the only way to maintain the sense of a cohort within this degree was to band together of our own volition outside of the classroom”.  A diminished sense of esprit de corps in the classroom left students feeling isolated and vulnerable.

Bailes says that it is “disappointing” for the university to ignore many of these suggestions and terminate the degree. It did so without consulting AASC. But perhaps that was inevitable. In 2010, a Faculty task force reviewed the specialist Arts degrees and found that they contribute to the perception of the straight BA as a lesser degree: the ‘it’s only a BA’ phenomenon.

In its present form, the degree has not delivered on its promise to “cultivat[e] high level disciplinary and interdisciplinary research and communication skills” any more than a conventional BA with Honours. If anything, it made it more difficult to develop those skills, and students were left with the impression that it was ‘their fault’ for enrolling.

In April, the Academic Board accepted recommendations to establish a Faculty Scholars Program to take effect from 2015. This promising initiative will consist of 18 credit points of ‘enhancement’ units to those entering second year. It is yet to be seen how the program will unfold in practice.

The Faculty needs a truly advanced pathway for enthusiastic and capable students. It should not be unduly restrictive, or force students through their degree with indecent haste. It should focus on enrichment and extension rather than acceleration and omission. Those students exist, and they want to challenge themselves.

Students in the BA(Adv)(Hons) program who would like to seek assistance should contact the AASC at ask@artsadvanced.info, the Degree Director Professor Barry Spurr, or the Faculty’s Student Support Programs team at arts.network@sydney.edu.au.

Ben Brooks

Ben Brooks

Ben Brooks is a third year Arts/Law student. He has been writing for Honi Soit since 2012. In his spare time, Ben is a myopic monarchist who likes to fly gliders.
Ben Brooks

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