Big Issues

Is Our Obsession With University Prestige Holding Us Back?

Will a good name on our resume really help us in the real world?

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I walked into my marketing tutorial last week to notice the class exercise for the day was to plot Victorian universities on a spectrum, depending on their level of prestige.

We put Melbourne University at the top of the list while poor old Victoria University copped a pretty bad rating.

I get the point of the exercise: to show us how brands use prestige to sell products. But still, it got me thinking about the whole idea of prestige within universities. What kind of product are we sold? And is it true anyway?

The whole thing about prestige is kind of silly, and I think it’s holding both students and universities back from reaching their full potential. Here are some reasons why.

‘Prestige’ Can’t Provide Everything We Need

Sydney University. Photo: Wikipedia

I’m just speaking from personal experience here, but I was sucked in by the prestige surrounding one of Australia’s best universities.

I’m not saying I’ve had a bad education, or regret studying Arts at Melbourne, but I might have been better off going elsewhere.

I can’t help but feel I was sucked in by the idea of prestige and a ranking system we hold so highly in our society.

I want to be a journalist and post-VCE I was tossing up between studying journalism at RMIT or Arts at Melbourne. Ultimately, the idea of having ‘University of Melbourne’ on my resume won out. And so I’ve endured three years of intense theory and research instead of working on my practical writing skills at RMIT.

I can’t help but feel I was sucked in by the idea of prestige and a ranking system we hold so highly in our society.

Sandstone Unis Cost A Tonne

According to this 2015 article, Australia’s top eight universities, known as the Group of Eight (Go8), are charging up to twice as much for some degrees. According to proposed changes, if you start a law degree at Melbourne uni in 2018, you’ll be paying around $124 385. That’s almost $5000 per subject.

It seems that having the title of one of Australia’s best universities can allow an institution to charge more.

It looks less and less likely that we’ll actually own a house in the future and who knows what jobs will exist in half a decade. We’ve already got enough obstacles as it is, we don’t need universities overcharging us.

They Won’t Really Impact Your Earning Potential

So what advantage do we get for all the money we spend on an education at one of the Go8 universities?

Well, apparently not much.

Research has shown many employers don’t really care what university you go to. This Grattan Institute study from last year found that there is, “little difference in salaries or small advantages to graduates of the Group of Eight and technology universities.” In fact, the earning difference is 6 per cent higher, according to a 2014 Mapping Australian Higher Education study.

Your starting graduate salary is more dependant on what gender you are than what university you go to.

The Grattan study also acknowledges that the “differences among universities may not be directly due to teaching quality.” Instead, they point out that Go8 unis may provide richer social networks, or students may have “non-university related characteristics that affect earning prospects”.

The study showed that the “largest income differences are linked to gender and course studied” not the university where you went.

Yep, your starting graduate salary is more dependant on what gender you are than what university you go to.

They’re Not Always Accessible

Most prestigious unis seem like they have some catching up to do when it comes to educating students from a low socio-economic background.

Western Sydney University (WSU), not part of the Go8, has increased its efforts to help students from low socio-economic backgrounds get a university education. According to WSU’s website, 20 per cent of all of their students would fit under this category.

The same can be said for Indigenous students, with 23 per cent of WSU’s cohort coming from an Indigenous background. Recent statistics also show that “prestigious city universities are outperformed by regional universities” in New South Wales when it comes to Indigenous student numbers.

With all that extra cash students like me are throwing at universities in the Go8, I’d like to think they could spend a little more of it helping out those who really need it.

Sean is a freelance journalist from Melbourne who’s biggest achievement to date was being published in The Guardian Australia. Currently studying and making radio stuff for SYN, Sean hopes to work his way into the media industry one way or another.

(Lead image: University of Melbourne. Geoff Penaluna/Flickr CC)