New degree confuses the NUS and everyone else too

USyd's upcoming Bachelor of Advanced Studies have many scratching their heads.

NUS Education campaign image claiming that University of Sydney Arts students will incur a 33% fee hike under its new compulsory four-year arts degree. The word 'compulsory' is circled and labelled 'FAKE NEWS'. Honi repeatedly asked NUS for the source of their campaign image’s claims, but was not provided with one.

On March 14, the NUS’ “Make Education Free Again” campaign – the Education Department’s national campaign for the year – posted an image warning USyd students of a 33% hike in degree costs resulting from the imposition of a new compulsory fourth year of study on three year bachelor degrees.

Several students posted worried comments about the cost of their degrees.

It’s true that the University of Sydney is preparing for some significant changes to degree structures next year.

Several faculties will merge and a huge number of degrees will disappear as USyd moves closer to the ‘Melbourne Model’ – requiring students to undertake broad undergraduate degrees before being eligible for specialist postgraduate degrees, such as Law.

There is one prominent difference though: USyd’s flagship change for undergrad degrees is the introduction of a new Bachelor of Advanced Studies.

The new program’s marquee status is clear in its placement in the 2018 handbook for prospective students: after several pages of oversized inspirational quotes, a promotion for the BAdvStud (the abbreviation practically sings) is the first substantive material students will find.

Unfortunately, the explanation of what this degree is or how it works is almost as vague as its name.

As much is clear in the National Union of Students’ response.

Honi repeatedly asked NUS for the reason for the image, but was not provided with one.

The students needn’t have worried; in reality, the BAdvStud is not to be compulsory. It is strictly opt-in.

That being said, the NUS can be forgiven for their mistake: the way the BAdvStud is structured and marketed suggests it might become functionally compulsory.

The University says the new program will “supercharge” your degree. It provides access to a plethora of  prestigious-sounding courses and, perhaps more importantly, lets potential graduates plaster the word “advanced” across their transcript. Unlike a regular honours, which shows the graduate has learned research skills, the BAdvStud is specifically designed to signal employability.

If uptake is high and thousands of arts students graduate with the advanced version of the degree, it stands to reason that the regular version will be devalued. National incentives are likely to compel the majority of new undergraduates to undertake the new degree.

To make matters worse, there is little information to explain this new degree.

But here is what we know: according to the University’s 2016-2020 Strategic Plan, the BAdvStudies is a response to concerns about rate of employment for graduates from three-year undergraduate programs.

“We are concerned about the falling employment rates nationally for three-year graduates and we’ve been listening to employers and the kinds of things they want to see in a 21st century education,” Michael Spence said in an interview with the ABC.

If Spence is to be believed, it seems employers want to see more jargon in degrees.

The BAdvStud aims to encourage “deep disciplinary expertise”, “real-world and multi-disciplinary problem solving skills” and “opportunity to acquire generic expertise”.

In practice, the BAdvStud changes degree structures and adds some new unit types.

Perhaps most importantly, it appears students will have to do the BAdvStudies to do a double major.

Completing the double major will only use up two the BAdvStudies units though, leaving room for a variety of new courses.

First are the new ‘advanced coursework’ units. The University has made very little information publicly available on what these units entail — odd given that students will be signing up to degrees featuring them in less than a year.

It’s likely some of these units will focus on interdisciplinary studies, given how this is emphasised in the Strategic Plan. Student will take two of their four ‘advanced coursework’ units in third year: one on how to apply disciplinary knowledge within a field; and the other on how to apply it in an interdisciplinary context.

Next, we have ‘project’ units. Each student will have to complete a research, entrepreneurship, industry or community-based project for 12 credit points. The University seems to have located its vision for an honours-lite academic project within these units.

Finally, the degree features ‘open learning environment’ units.  These will be short, modular courses that teach generic skills.

Some of the proposed topics included data science, research techniques, entrepreneurial thinking, ethics, team leadership, design thinking, intercultural communication, and project management. It is not clear how the University plans to differentiate these from a stock-standard motivational speech.

One unfortunate consequence of the Bachelor of Advanced Studies is that it will supplant honours as the traditional way to extend a three-year degree, and shift it to the periphery in students minds.

The marketing material itself it pretty telling: traditional honours receives only a passing mention as something you can opt to do as part of the bachelor of advance studies…if you are seeking a career in research.

Some elements of this new degree genuinely look set to improve students’ employability, but the lack of information makes it appear rushed, generic and commercial.

Next year’s student intake will reveal whether students want to pay several thousand dollars for a degree featuring a short modular course in ‘team leadership’.