The Organisation of Teaching in Australian Universities

Although Australian universities are rather more independent of government interference than German universities, they have developed a much more uniform approach to teaching (especially with respect to the amount of work which is expected of students) than is common in German universities, although the terminology which they use to describe this may differ from university to university. I will now use the terminology which is used in most of the universities and which you will therefore find on the websites of many (though not all) Australian universities.

Semesters and Trimesters

As in Germany the teaching year is normally spread across two semesters. These are known as Semester 1, which usually begins in late February or early March, and Semester 2, which usually begins in late June to mid-July. Before the semester begins there is a compulsory enrolment period. (If you cannot arrive in time for this you will have to advise your university and obtain permission to start late.) The enrolment period is usually followed by an orientation week, which gives you the chance to discover what is happening at the university, including the opportunity to learn about the many student clubs and activities which are usually available in Australian universities.

In the middle of each of these semesters there is a pause for about one week in lectures, which gives you the opportunity for example to do some sightseeing.

After the lectures finish for each semester there is an examination period, in which students sit the compulsory examinations for the lecture units which they have studied during the semester. These examinations are usually written, not oral as in the German system.

There are a few universities which also offer a "summer semester" from about November until February. However in most universities there is no such summer semester and where such a semester exists, it may only be offered by individual faculties. In universities (such as Deakin University) where the decision has been made to regularise this situation, the semesters may be known as "trimesters". If you are a BAföG student it is important for you to read their ruling about trimesters. Notice that this does not mean that a normal teaching year is divided into three terms. Each of the three trimesters normally requires of students a full semester workload (in the German sense). Hence a course which requires 6 semesters of work from students can (but must not) be completed in 2 rather than 3 years. However, students (including international students) remain free to complete the course over three years, at the rate of two semesters per year, if he wishes.

Australia's leading private university (Bond University) has a similar system to that described for Deakin University, except that it refers to these as "semesters". But the semester dates are different: Semester 1 runs from mid-January to mid-April, Semester 2 from mid-May to mid-August an Semester 3 from mid September to mid-December (completing before Christmas).

The main advantage for international students is that they can save on living costs (but not on tuition fees) by completing their courses more quickly. However, as I indicated above, there are only a very few universities/faculties which offer this facility at present, though I anticipate that the numbers will increase in the next few years.

Credit Points and Student Workloads

It has become (almost) uniform practice in Australian universities to define a full-time workload for students as consisting of four teaching units (hereafter referred to simply as "units") per week over the semester. These teaching units (which in some universities are called "subjects") normally take the form of lectures or projects, but occasionally seminars, reading units and other forms of teaching forms.

A student gains credit points (CPs) for completing teaching units. In Germany the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) is almost universally used as a measure of student workload, with 30 ECTS points per semester being the norm. However, in Australia each university defines its own credit point system. For example Deakin University in Melbourne defines the normal semester workload as 4 CPs per semester, so that individual units are normally worth 1 CP. On the other hand Monash University, also in Melbourne, defines 24 CPs as a full time semester workload, so that individual units are normally worth 6 CPs. Bond University has 10 CPs per subject. Other universities use different systems. This can confuse German students when they look at the websites of Australian universities, but once you know the base semester workload (or the standard CP value for a standard unit) conversion between these is a matter of simple arithmetic.

In reality the way many German universities use the ECTS system is far more confusing. Because German teaching units have often not been revised since they were designed for use in the older "Semesterwochenstunde" (SWS) system, there is no standard value for a single teaching unit, and the result is that different lectures require different workloads from students, which makes the German system very non-modular (even if the Germans refer to their teaching units as "modules"). It is interesting to note that SWS is actually a legal concept in Germany which is used to define the workload of professors, not of students! It is not supposed to measure how much work a student undertakes, but how much work a professor does.

Australian universities usually define the workloads of students in their policy documents, and this helps to ensure that in practice the same student workload applies for each credit point in courses throughout a university. For German students coming to Australia this has the big advantage that you can make an appropriate selection of units without having to be concerned about the amount of work which each involves. (Of course no-one can guarantee that every lecturer is perfect, but in extreme circumstances – for example if a lecturer demands considerably more work of students than is normal – you can make a formal complaint about this.)

Overweight Units

An overweight unit is a unit taken by a student over and above the normal number of units for a semester. A student needs special permission in order to enrol an overweight unit. Mostly such permission will not be granted unless he or she has really excelled in the courses which he has already taken at the university in question. Permission will only rarely be granted on the basis of results of courses at another (e.g. a German) university.

This means, for example, that a student who has only been awarded 3 units of credit/advanced standing in a three semester master degree and who therefore has to take 9 units in order to complete the degree will probably have to spend three semesters at in Australia to complete the degree, even if he thinks that he is capable of passing four units in one semester and five in the other.

If you do want to take overweight units you can not negotiate this before you arrive in Australia, but will have to discuss your request with the course coordinator. And remember, there is a very high probability that he will reject your request!

Marks for Teaching Units

Whereas credit points define student workloads, marks define student results. Marks are usually awarded as percentage points, and Australian transcripts usually show an exact percentage. However, these are then graded into the following categories: high distinction (HD), distinction (D), credit (C), pass (P) and fail (F). Sometimes there is an additional mark: near pass (NP), which usually means that the result can count as a pass, but cannot be used to demonstrate that one has achieved the prerequisites for a higher level course in the same area.

Each university makes its own grading decisions, but the following table is frequently used:

High Distinction HD 80% and over
Distinction D 70-79%
Credit C 60-69%
Pass P 50-89%
Near Pass (where offered) NP 45-49%
Fail F 0-49% (or 0-44%)

Another commonly used grading system is as follows:

High Distinction HD 80% and over
Distinction D 75-79%
Credit C 65-74%
Pass P 50-64%
Near Pass (where offered) NP 45-49%
Fail F 0-49% (or 0-44%)

Notice that both of these grading schemes are non-linear. It is extremely difficult for a student in most subjects to obtain a score much better than about 90%. This can lead to problems for German students, as in Germany many professors are very generous in the Hauptdiplom or new Master degrees, frequently giving marks of 1.3 or better.

Kinds of Teaching Units

Lectures correspond to the "classical" lectures found at most universities worldwide, including those in German universities. Generally speaking Australian lecturers take considerable trouble to present their material clearly and in a form which is easy to understand. They often tell students exactly what chapters of a book should be read in preparation for a lecture. This sometimes leads to comments from German students that they are being "spoon fed", because German lecturers often do not take the same trouble to present their material. However, Australian lecturers are not perfect! As in Germany there are good and bad lecturers.

Double Lectures can be defined which often (but not necessarily) run over two consecutive semesters, and can be recognised by having double credit points. These are usually only found at the postgraduate level.

Assignments usually accompany lectures. These define what work a student has to do in addition to hearing the lecture. Assignments can take many forms, e.g. reading particular chapters of a book, writing an essay on a topic from the lecture, carrying out some practical work to reinforce the content of the lecture, etc. Assignments, unlike German Übungen, are usually compulsory. Normally there is a set date by which an assignment must be completed and handed in for marking. German students frequently complain that there is too much work in the assignments, but at the end of term, when examination time comes round, they are usually glad that the assignments forced them to work and really understand the content of a lecture.

Projects/Theses are teaching units which are not directly accompanied by a lecture, but which require the student to carry out a defined task. Depending on the subject these may be very practical or fairly theoretical. They may be defined to be completed individually or in groups. They will usually require a written report or a thesis to be prepared, in which the student has to describe the results which he has achieved.

Projects may be equivalent to a single teaching unit, two teaching units or, usually at the honours level (see section 3.4), four units. A four unit honours project is equivalent to a German Diplomarbeit or Masterarbeit. Very occasionally one finds even longer projects in coursework master degree courses (see section 5).

On-line Units are units which, as their name implies, make extensive use of the Internet and usually do not involve face-to-face teaching. These are usually used in connection with off-campus courses, but not necessarily so. It is sometimes possible for an on-campus student to take an on-line unit as part of his degree course. Often universities restrict the number of on-line units in which an international student may enrol.

Courses at Australian Universities

The word "course" is used on this website to mean all the teaching units comprising a degree or other major award (e.g. Postgraduate Certificate or Diploma). However, there are a few universities which use the word to mean a teaching unit.

Off-Campus Courses are degree courses which are taught remotely (usually as on-line units but they may also be offered by post), i.e. without requiring the student to attend a campus for lectures or other teaching units. Because of Australian Government regulations international students are not permitted to enrol in off-campus courses while living in Australia. However, they can enrol in offcampus courses if they study these outside Australia (e.g. in Germany).

On-Campus Courses are the normal degree courses which are taught on the university campuses, requiring the student to be present at the campus during the semester teaching period. Occasionally these may include one or more on-line units (see above).

Teaching Units in Course Descriptions

There are rules about which units can be taken as part of a course.

Core Units/Compulsory Units are units which every student who completes a course must either study or be granted an exemption from studying (because he or she has already successfully studied the content of the core unit in some other course). A student being granted an exemption on the basis of a similar unit (or units) must be able to prove that he has passed the unit(s) and that the content is similar. How such exemptions can be obtained is discussed in Chapter 5.

Elective Units, sometimes simply known as "electives", are units which are not a compulsory part of the course, but which the student may optionally select to complete the requirements of the course. Some electives are very precisely specified (e.g. a unit from a particular list of units) while others may be chosen freely, or the degree regulations may for example specify the name of a faculty from which the elective must be chosen.

Specialisation is the name given to a particular related group of (usually elective) units which may be selected in a group as part of a course. The name of the specialisation may or may not appear in the title of the degree awarded.

Unit Codes and Unit Levels

Each unit usually has a "unit code" which uniquely identifies it. This often includes a four digit code which indicates its "level", as follows:

1xxx First-year undergraduate-level units.

2xxx Second-year undergraduate-level units that assume prior knowledge of the discipline or areas of study at the preceding level.

3xxx Third-year undergraduate-level units that assume prior knowledge of the discipline or areas of study at the preceding levels.

4xxx Fourth-year-level units offered in honours and postgraduate diplomas that assume prior knowledge of the discipline at the preceding levels and units offered in some graduate courses that build on knowledge gained in an undergraduate degree in a related discipline and relevant employment experience.

5xxx Fifth-year-level units offered in those cumulative masters degrees that assume prior knowledge of the discipline at the preceding levels, and units offered in some other masters degrees that build on knowledge gained through previous study in a related discipline and relevant employment experience.

6xxx Sixth-year doctoral units that assume prior knowledge of the discipline at the preceding levels.

9xxx Accelerated learning units offered in graduate courses that assume no prior knowledge of the discipline at a preceding level but building on knowledge and skills gained through previous study in another discipline area and/or relevant employment experience.

Understanding unit levels is important because course descriptions (and study abroad rules) are often defined in terms of the codes/levels of the units which can be selected. Do not confuse unit codes with course numbers. The latter are not standardised. Similarly they should not be confused with CRICOS numbers, which indicate that a course has been approved by the Australian government for international students.

Full-Time and Part-Time Students

A full-time student is a student who takes a full student load (normally four teaching units per semester, but under some circumstances this may be defined for international students as three units). A part-time student is a student who before the beginning of a semester chooses to take (and therefore pay for) a lesser number of units than a full time workload. Notice that one cannot change to a part-time course at the end of a semester in order to avoid taking examinations!

International students are required by the Australian government to study as fulltime students while they are in Australia. This is a condition for obtaining a student visa, and the Australian universities are legally bound to report to the Department of Immigration any student who changes to a part-time course.

An international student (under conditions which currently apply) is permitted to take up paid work during semester teaching periods for up to 20 hours per week and during non-teaching periods he can take a full-time job.

Normal Australian students, who have started their university courses directly after completing their high school courses, rarely study part-time.The normal part-time students in Australia are, for example,

  • working professionals, to improve their knowledge in their profession,
  • housewives, to study part-time after their children have grown up,
  • retired senior citizens, to improve their general knowledge.

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