Deciding Between a Bachelor Degree with Honours and a Coursework Master Degree

The German politicians have created a difficult problem for students who wish to enrol in an Australian degree after completing a German bachelor degree or after gaining bachelor equivalence (see section). I have already mentioned in sections "Bachelor Degrees" and "Master Degrees and Other Postgraduate Coursework Awards" of "The Australian University System" that in Australia the normal pathway to a PhD program is a bachelor degree with honours, not a master by coursework degree. The following table summarises some of the advantages and disadvantages for German students faced with the choice between a bachelor honours degree and a master by coursework degree. You should, however, recall that there are two kinds of bachelor with honours degrees: those which are regarded as a separate two semester course following the bachelor pass degree and those which are integrated into a normal bachelor degree programme (see section). Since German students will rarely hold the latter type of bachelor degree, the following table and subsequent discussion considers only the one year bachelor with honours degree.

  Bachelor with Honours Master by Coursework
Project (equiv. to German Diplom- or Masterarbeit) yes usually not
Qualifies for entry to an Australian PhD program with good results usually not
Qualifies for entry to a German doctoral program see below possibly
Usual course length 2 semesters 3 semesters
Advanced Standing possible no yes
Standard post-bachelor degree for young Australians yes no
Exit points no often yes
Standard of course high medium
Standing/Reputation in Germany not known in Germany like a German master degree

The entries in this table are of course generalisations, and as such they require some further explanation.

Research Oriented Project

A fundamental difference between a bachelor with honours and most coursework master courses is that the former includes what is usually called a project (occasionally a thesis) that is equivalent to a German Diplom- or Masterarbeit. There are a few exceptions in which the advanced master degrees (see section) include such a project, and in other cases there are four semester master honours degrees (see section) which include such projects, but most standard three semester coursework master degrees do not.

Qualification for Entry to an Australian PhD

The bachelor with honours degree is the usual pathway to an Australian PhD degree. However, only those students who obtain good marks in the course will be admitted to a PhD programme. Furthermore research students might be expected to enrol initially in a research master/master by thesis programme (see section) in order to prove that they have the necessary research ability to transfer to a PhD programme (see section).

In contrast with the new German system, the Australian system does not require students to have a coursework master degree before being admitted to a doctoral programme. In fact the standard two or three semester coursework master degree (regardless whether this is what I have called an advanced or a conversion master degree) usually does not qualify a student to be enrolled into a PhD programme. An exception may be made for students who have completed a research oriented project (see section) and who have gained good results.

Note also that good results in a German master degree or Diplom will usually be accepted for entry to an Australian PhD programme.

Qualification for Entry to a German Doctoral Programme

In 1998 an official "Memorandum of Understanding" was agreed between the Commonwealth Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs of Australia and the Secretariat of the Standing Conference of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder in the Federal Republic of Germany on the recognition of academic qualifications.

You should be aware however that although this agreement has an official character the final decision regarding admission to a German doctoral programme is made by the relevant German doctoral committee.

Bachelor with Honours Degrees:

On the issue of admission to a German doctoral programme, the memorandum states with respect to bachelor with honours degrees:

"The Zentralstelle will recommend that the Australian Bachelor with Honours/Honours Bachelor degree with thesis or research project and the classification 'First Class' or 'Second Class, Upper Division' – variously described, for example, as Second Class, Division A (2A) or Second Class, Division I (2.1 or 2.i) – should be regarded as appropriate for direct admission to doctoral studies (by research and defended thesis) in Germany."

This rule seems to be quite clear: if you have a bachelor degree with honours (with good results) then you should be admitted into a doctoral programme. You should nevertheless be aware that the decision for admission to a German doctoral programme is made by the relevant doctoral committee of your faculty in Germany, so you should check with them before you apply for admission to a bachelor degree with honours. If necessary show them this text.

Research Master Degrees:

On the issue of admission to a German doctoral programme, this says with respect to research master degrees:

"The Zentralstelle will continue to regard an Australian Master degree by research as appropriate for direct admission to doctoral studies in Germany."

This simply confirms standard practice from the past, but do not confuse a research master degree with a coursework master degree!

Coursework Master Degrees:

On the issue of admission to a German doctoral programme, this says with respect to coursework master degrees:

"Holders of an Australian Master degree by coursework (which includes a research component) should be evaluated individually.

Holders of an Australian Master degree whose qualifications do not fulfil the requirements may be asked to write a research paper in Germany before admission is granted. Candidates should no longer be asked to sit the German Diplom, Magister, or Staatsexamenprüfung to be eligible for admission to doctoral work in Germany."

These recommendations more or less follow the Australian viewpoint that admission to a doctoral programme is only possible if the coursework master includes a research component (i.e. a substantial project) and if the result is good. Otherwise you will probably be required also to complete a Masterarbeit in Germany. But again, remember to discuss this in advance with the relevant doctoral committee of your faculty in Germany!

To be Quite Sure

The safest way to ensure that you can proceed to a doctoral programme in Germany is to complete the German course which you had probably started before coming to Australia (e.g. a Diplom or a German master degree). This does not mean that you have wasted your time in Australia. Apart from the fact that you will have gained a degree from abroad (which usually impresses German employers) you can probably have some of your Australian units recognised towards your German degree. But again remember that this requires the approval of a German faculty examination committee (more information here).

Different Course Lengths and Advanced Standing

The bachelor with honours degree involves intensive study over two semesters, whereas most coursework master degrees run for at least three semesters. There is usually no provision in the regulations of a bachelor with honours degree for obtaining advanced standing. So you will have to spend two semesters completing this degree. You can start the degree directly after completing a bachelor degree (or gaining bachelor equivalence) in Germany, provided that you can present your results in time for the administrative hurdles to be completed.

On the other hand a three semester master by coursework degree can under favourable circumstances be reduced to two semesters by obtaining advanced standing (find more information here) based on master level courses which you have completed in Germany. This will allow you then to complete a three semester master degree in two semesters. Having to complete such a semester in Germany at the master level may seem to be a disadvantage when compared with the bachelor honours degree.

This disadvantage primarily manifests itself in extra work for you because you have to gather evidence (including obtaining course descriptions) that you have taken such courses.

Surprisingly, having to take these additional lectures in Germany often does not lead to a later start in Australia. The reason is explained here.

Standard Post-Bachelor Degree for Young Australians

After Australian students have completed a three year bachelor degree they normally either leave the university to find employment or, if their marks are good, they will proceed to the bachelor honours degree. In my whole experience in Australia I have never known of an Australian student who proceeded to enrol in a coursework master degree immediately after completing a three year bachelor degree!

This means that if you decide to enrol in a master by coursework degree you are unlikely to find many Australians enrolled in the course, unless it is a course which is popular with older Australians as a means of furthering their careers (e.g. an MBA degree). Instead you will find that most of the students are international students, just like you. Most of these will be from India, China and/or South East Asia.

On the other hand if you enrol in a bachelor with honours course it is probable that most of the students will be Australians, though there may also be international students taking the course, especially if they are interested in enrolling in an Australian PhD programme.

Exit Points

In section 5.1 I described the relationship between coursework master degrees and other higher awards (graduate/postgraduate certificates and diplomas). Often a student who begins studying the coursework master can exit from this early, and be awarded a certificate or diploma as appropriate.

This has the advantage for German students who are not sure at the beginning of the course whether they can afford to pay the fees for the full period of their planned study then have the opportunity to exit earlier with a lesser award.

This is not possible in the bachelor honours degree courses.

Standard of the Course

The primary purpose of a one year bachelor honours degree is to prepare good students for starting a research programme (and for deciding if they are good enough to proceed to such a programme). Hence the standard and quality of the course is usually high, and the lectures are usually research-oriented. The programme also includes a project which is the equivalent of a German Diplom- or Masterarbeit.

Consequently this is usually the course where good researchers are looking for future research students. The likelihood is therefore very high that your lecturers will be good quality researchers, and the quality of the lecturers themselves will be correspondingly high.

On the other hand the purpose of a master by coursework course is to give employees working in various industries and professions the opportunity to update or improve their knowledge to improve their performance at work, or even to retrain in a new area (e.g. to help them start a new career).

In practice many international students find the title "master" more attractive than "bachelor with honours" and this also results in many international students enrolling in master by coursework courses.

Few of the students normally enrolled in coursework master courses aim to pursue a research oriented career, and consequently the level of the courses is lower than that of the bachelor with honours courses. This is not a criticism of such courses; it is a reflection of their different aims.

Standing/Reputation in Germany

The main dilemma facing most German students in their decision between a bachelor honours course and a coursework master course has, in my view, been created by German politicians' lack of understanding of the Anglo-American university systems, resulting in a decision to define laws which are incompatible with the latter.

Like the old Diplom system the new bachelor/master system in Germany often aims to teach all German students in such a way that they are being prepared for research careers, which is the purpose of the bachelor degree with honours, but not coursework master degrees. This is not the place to criticise the German system (though I do have many criticisms), but it is nevertheless important to make this difference clear.

The results are that

a) there is no honours degree in the German system, and
b) students not planning to (and/or not capable of) later embarking on a research career are often forced to take lectures in Germany which are inappropriate for them, and,
c) most important in the present context, the nature of the bachelor with honours and of the coursework master degrees is almost completely unknown in Germany.

The unfortunate effect is that German students who plan to study in a country such as Australia have to decide between
i) a coursework master degree, which may be below the level of good students but which will be understood and probably highly recognised in Germany, and
ii) a bachelor with honours degree which would be more suitable for them, but which appears to most Germans (including most employers) to be inferior, because it is merely a "bachelor degree"!

I can only point out the advantages and disadvantages. In my experience most German students (understandably) choose the master degree. If you make such a decision do not later unfairly criticise the quality of the lectures, for example, and even worse, do not then make generalisations about the quality of Australian universities!

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