The University Medal recognises students who have obtained First Class Honours and demonstrated exceptional academic excellence across their studies (i.e. a GPA greater than 6.5).
As we settle into a new academic year, both new and returning students alike may find themselves facing one of the great dilemmas of university: whether to pick up, or drop, a second degree. While a single degree gives us greater opportunity to specialise with electives, a double degree allows for a broader university experience, but at the loss of the ability to specialise to the same extent. A common solution for double degree students is to complete Honours in their stronger discipline. Interestingly, the University has now adopted a policy that has the potential to effectively punish students wishing to undertake cross-disciplinary studies with Honours.
In 2015, the University undertook a review of the University Medal, the recommendations of which have been implemented this year. While this appears to be a formalisation of existing procedure in part, some of the approved recommendations put double degree students at a disadvantage of having their achievements in their Honours discipline recognised. This policy specifically affects students who are outstanding in their Honours discipline, but do not necessarily possess the same natural affinity towards their other discipline. Such students now stand to miss out on the prestigious University Medal, with all courses in a double degree to be considered in evaluating Medal candidates as per recommendation 7.
It does not seem entirely logical that results in a student’s second degree should suddenly have a bearing on the award of a Medal when the minimum eligibility requirement (recommendation 5) considers the results in the Honours discipline exclusively. An unfortunate consequence of this is that in some cases, a student who would otherwise be awarded a University Medal if they completed their Honours discipline as a single degree, may be no longer worthy of recognition, solely due to the results in their second degree. This becomes particularly acute when there is little overlap between coursework in the two disciplines (and many of us have experienced variation in grading schemes between, and even within, Colleges). Yet, recommendation 9 provides that all undergraduate courses be given equal weighting, regardless of their relevance to the very discipline that gives rise to eligibility for consideration.
Despite this inconsistency, the review makes it clear that this is the direction the University wishes to take, with recommendation 10 removing the specified discipline area from the award altogether. The policy fails to recognise that individuals have inherent specialisations, often revealed by the discipline in which Honours is taken. At the end of the day, it is the people who are at the top of their field – the “thought leaders” as we like to call them – who are making the greatest contribution. However, the University Medal may not necessarily recognise the efforts of such students if their performance in their second degree is not quite as outstanding. Ironically, it seems entirely possible that a lower ranking student within the same Honours cohort may be awarded a Medal if they have better grades in their second degree (if they have completed one), despite their results in the Honours discipline being the very thing that gives rise to their eligibility.
We are all fortunate to be at a university that provides us with the most choice and flexibility to undertake cross-disciplinary studies in Australia. We are encouraged to make the most of the opportunities that our great University presents to us, but we should be free to do so without consequence. While it is unlikely that students make the single or double degree decision based solely on maximising their chances of attaining a University Medal, the University should not punish students for choosing to broaden their learning with a double degree, and the University Medal system should reflect that.