Evette Harris is a keen English student and member of the interschool debating team who was drawn to law by its emphasis on reading and writing. The 18-year-old also has an interest in psychology, and wants to undertake a double degree in law and psychology next year.
Like thousands of other Victorian year 12 students, Harris, who is a school captain at Blackburn High School in Melbourne’s east, applied for her dream course through the Victorian Tertiary Applications Centre (VTAC) in September.
But the hard part was deciding where to study it.
With 43 universities in Australia, it is a difficult decision for students to make, especially while they are still in school. There are many factors to consider: location, fees, course, and for some, university rankings and prestige.
The University of Melbourne is consistently the highest or second-highest ranking institution in Australia and is ranked about 40th in the world, according to the most well-known world rankings: Times Higher Education (THE), QS and the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU).
However, Dr Andrew Lancaster, director of student resource company UniCurve, is critical of these rankings. “They’re basically just surveys,” he says. “It’s all very superficial.”
He also questions QS’s recent ranking of The Australian National University as the sixth best in Australia for education, despite the university not offering any teaching degrees. “That shows you how accurate the rankings are,” he says.
Harris is far from the first in her family to undertake tertiary study. Her older brother studies Information Technology at RMIT University. Her mother is a teacher, and her father is an occupational therapist. Both parents have completed early childhood courses in addition to other studies, and have studied at several institutions.
As for her own studies, Harris has settled upon Monash University as her first choice, with the University of Melbourne as her second preference. Melbourne and Monash are the highest and second-highest ranking universities in Victoria respectively, and Harris says this prestige was an enticing factor.
“Prestige sort of screams quality to me,” she says. “So [I thought], well if I want a quality degree then maybe I should go there.”
Katy Collie is a first-year arts student at the University of Melbourne. The 19-year-old, who is a member of the university’s dance club and Christian Union, says she is “really happy” with her choice and enjoys the Melbourne University culture.
But while she lists the university’s city location, the architecture and good arts faculty as factors that influenced her decision, she says prestige “had a larger role than I like to admit”.
“The kind of default choice at my school was between Monash and Melbourne. I went to a private girls’ school, and I think because of the prestige of that school they were subtly encouraging people to go to [those universities],” she says.
Harris says that while prestige is appealing, her preferences were mainly influenced by Monash’s and Melbourne’s law schools.
“[Both] specialise in law. When I looked at Monash . . . you can do whatever kind of law you want. And Melbourne was like you have to complete your undergrad . . . then you can choose where you want to go from there. I was looking for a wide spread of [options].”
Harris, who describes herself as social, also likes Monash’s community.
“The social environment seemed super accepting. I wouldn’t want to go to a university where I would go in and go out. I’d want to be involved in the environment of the university as well.”
Ross White is the head of product at the Good Education Group, a company that publishes resources to help students make decisions about schools, universities and careers.
The company’s annual Good Universities Guide uses a rating system wherein each institution is individually assessed according to a list of criteria including staff qualification, learning resources and teaching quality. Conversely, THE, QS and ARWU use ranking systems, placing institutions one after another in a list from best to worst according to their criteria.
ARWU, which was developed by Shanghai Jiao Tong University in 2003, uses factors such as number of staff who have won Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals, number of articles published in journals and number of “highly cited researchers” to determine its rankings.
White says that while this research-oriented ranking is interesting, “[students] may not experience very much of what that ranking is talking about when they actually get to university . . . particularly from an Australian domestic student’s point of view, [they’re] barely scratching the surface.”
So how much influence should rankings and prestige have on a student’s decision?
White says he “dissuades” prospective students from focusing on prestige. “[It’s] a very difficult thing to qualify or quantify. It can’t be measured, it’s very non-specific, it doesn’t say anything about what a student will experience in terms of teaching quality, or how a student’s employment outcomes are going to stack up.”
Collie proposes a need for balance.
“I think [prestige] should be pretty low on the list of reasons, because people can choose something that’s not necessarily as good for them as something else based off an impression they get, and that’s not helpful.
“But I guess in a way places have prestige for a reason. If you’ve got a good reputation it’s because at least in the past you’ve done good job at what you do, or people perceive you to have done a good job.”
And as for whether going to a highly ranked university increases a post-graduate’s employability, that is still debatable, with the students and experts each having different perceptions.
In preparation for VTAC’s first course offers in January 2017, Harris is focusing on performing well enough on her final exams, which commence in late October , to get into her dream double degree at Monash.
But regardless of where Harris goes, Collie says in the end it won’t really matter after all.
“Being a uni student is just awesome. No matter where you are.”