Ps make degrees, but they don’t make a life

Why do we define success at university only by WAM?

The foundation of tertiary education is built on a somewhat outdated, rigid concept of ‘acquiring knowledge’. You need not look further than the mottos of prominent Australian universities, engraved under their crests and across their merchandise.

UNSW’s Latin phrase, ‘scientia manu et mente’, translates to ‘knowledge by hand and mind’; Swinburne promotes ‘achievement through learning’, whereas University of Queensland supports excellence ‘through knowledge and hard work.’ UWA’s own motto encourages us to ‘seek wisdom’ on the daily. These mottos echo the same sentiment- the overall value of your degree is mostly dependent on your ability to pursue and retain knowledge.

Realistically, this often translates to memorisation and vomiting content onto a page in a two-hour, high pressure time frame. You are taught information throughout the twelve, thirteen weeks of a standard semester, and are expected to demonstrate your understanding of that information through arbitrary assessments such as end of semester exams, physical portfolios or aptitude in workplace placements. In short, tertiary institutions operate by subscribing to the equivalence of ‘success’ and ‘knowledge gained.’

…tertiary students have been conditioned to value good grades as the only take away from their experience as a student

As a result, tertiary students have been conditioned to value good grades as the only take away from their experience as a student. The higher your grades, the more ‘knowledgeable’ you are, the higher the value gained from your time studying, and the easier it is to continue to study into the future. It is the ‘ouroboros’ of textbooks and late night library sessions- students strive to prove that some knowledge has crawled into their brain, which translates into Distinctions or Credits or Passes or Fails.

There is a lingering emphasis on upper-class intellectualism amongst most older institutions, where historical access to ‘knowledge’ was limited only to the very privileged and/or intellectually gifted. Universities were hallowed halls, predominantly filled with men from wealthy families who had the privilege and means to spend time ‘pursuing an education’. Technical colleges and vocational education were looked down upon as arenas for the lower class.

The temporary abolition of university fees under the Whitlam government served to broaden access to tertiary education to a wider socio-economic playing field. However, these ideals still remain; a student’s successful pathway through tertiary education is heavily dependent on demonstrating that they’ve measured up to the ‘course outcomes’, with minimal value taken from other aspects of the tertiary experience.

Factors such as a person’s ethnicity, socio-economic background, social aptitude, gender and sexuality, and mental health all contribute to how a person interacts with the world and carves out experiences at universities or vocational colleges. Someone may feel more uncomfortable than others when engaging with a classroom, lecture or exam; some may feel more out of place, scared or intimidated by the traditional educational experience.

These types of students are classified as unsuccessful, as they are not able to ‘acquire knowledge’ in the conventional way. As most Australian universities are very large institutions, with thousands of students, the application of strict marking schemes, codes, and policies that students are required to conform to, in order to progress through their degree, are necessary. But in losing that regard for the individual student, the idea of a ‘good’ student has become entirely circumscribed, and means that grades have become the only takeaway of value from the university experience.

The counterfactual is that universities have no other way of assessing students besides placing them on an objective scale. This is true, and a challenging question- but from the student’s point of view, the knowledge one learns attending a tertiary institution can be broken down into so much more. You become more knowledgeable about yourself, challenge your world view and meet so many new people. You develop and grow as a person before you even set foot into a lecture theatre or workshop. Universities should be emphasising this to students; good grades are important, but other measures of value are also retained along the way.

You develop and grow as a person before you even set foot into a lecture theatre or workshop.

I started my first year of law school last semester, and it’s been a fulfilling yet difficult time. I’m lucky that I undertake my studies from a place comparatively free from disadvantage compared to others. But even I’ve experienced this feeling. Throughout my undergraduate years and Honours degree, I fit nicely into the mould of achievement pushed by my university – my grades were outstanding, and therefore I was seen to be competently knowledgeable in my chosen field. Starting law has flipped this script – I am constantly pushed out of my comfort zone, my grades are lower than they were (commonplace for law school, as staff constantly remind us) imposter syndrome is all too real, and I have no idea what I’m doing.

I know that even if my grades soon improve, my aptitude for resilience, or valuable lessons from mistakes made in my first subjects, or success at overcoming a steep learning-curve, will never be valued over-and-above those first, lower-than-I-would-like grades. The bottom line is, I’m not achieving as I used to. And for the time being, I am considered less knowledgeable, less successful, lesser.

To their credit, there is a changing culture of tertiary institutions adopting a more accommodating perspective. There have been notable increases nationwide in the amount of funding designated to student support services, monetary scholarships and fairway access programs, in order to create a more flexible tertiary pathway for students who study from positions of disadvantage, and don’t, or can’t, fit perfectly in the confines of the model student.

Campus culture is promoted and nourished, with clubs and guilds and leagues being founded for a multitude of different things. However, the fact that the release of exam results every year is accompanied by links to counselling hotlines, social support networks and consultation hours at the Student Guild speaks volumes of the import still placed purely on the value of intellectual success.

There is much more to be done to change how tertiary institutions- and their students – extract value out of their experiences; and perhaps that is as simple as gaining some perspective; to seek a deeper kind of education than university’s can distill in a motto.

Bridget Rumball is completing her Juris Doctor at the University of Western Australia.

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