The ‘F’ Word

How do we shake off the shackles of 'failure' at university?

“We think you’re at risk of failing your degree.” 

Blood was pumping in my ears but I’m still pretty sure that’s what the bloke in front of me said. The two women sat beside him gave that weird closed-mouth smile that apparently provides sympathy, comfort, and just a little too much pity. I’m not a perfectionist by any means, but watching that word ‘failing’’ be thrown out, landing on the table between myself and these university people, was one of the most embarrassing and shameful experiences of my life. 

I was fully aware that my studies were slipping away from me. In my first semester my family experienced a number of tragedies in swift and brutal succession that left me responsible for the day to day care of my younger siblings. I was also dealing with the fact that I found myself in a Commerce degree simply because I enjoyed watching Mad Men and thought a life in advertising (and drinking Scotch at 11am) would be the life for me. Caught between the sense of duty to my family and this sense of duty to Commerce, I would find myself leaving classes with absolutely no idea what had been discussed, presented, or completed. My mind was a whir of planning for other people – funerals, insurance claims, getting my siblings to appointments – and there was simply no room for the 4 P’s of marketing or econometrics. I knew I couldn’t give my studies the brain power they demanded, but I didn’t know what else to do, because no one at university ever really wants to talk about the prospect of not achieving reasonable marks, or what to do if you realise the domain you’re studying in isn’t – and perhaps never was – your cup of tea. 

 The university culture in regards to failure is not a healthy one

Failure is a funny thing at university. On the one hand, the amount of people attending and successfully acquiring degrees suggests that tertiary education is not an impossible mountain to climb. On the other, the term ‘dropping out’ is used perhaps as a very generously encompassing term for people who weren’t necessarily getting the results that would encourage them to continue studying. In the brutal fluorescent light of your Monday 9am class, you don’t realise jokes about dropping out are serious until people just disappear, never to engage in an awkward group work activity again. It is this great big elephant in the room that is dutifully ignored until half the class has been stampeded.

 The university culture in regards to failure is not a healthy one. Failing students is an expensive exercise for universities and governments alike. But we need to look beyond the immediate, easy answer –  young people are too lazy or stoned to attend classes and just hope a degree will be handed to them – and recognise that my experiences of undertaking a degree I wasn’t really that keen on but didn’t know how to escape, combined with a pretty hardcore family tragedy that impacted my studies, and an implied, unwritten rule that the tutors, lecturers and administrators at uni don’t really care about what’s going on in your life beyond the grounds of the university, is not isolated. A report by LaTrobe University recently found that a number of failed tertiary students were ‘ghost fails’ – students that dropped out without formally pausing or ending their studies, because they weren’t aware of the processes required. The same study found a surprisingly high number of students didn’t genuinely understand the notion of ‘census dates’, or that in leaving a course prior to this date you (and the university) could be spared the failure status. Though this study was small, it revealed there were many reasonably cheap adjustments universities could make to ensure all students were aware of their options for pausing, changing, or leaving their studies before they end of failing. This would be a way of adjusting the culture of failure at universities, without having to implement any significant changes. But in the long-held tradition of ignoring what people are genuinely asking for, the Government has made the decision to further embed this unhealthy culture of failure throughout Australian universities.

This legislation is built upon the extraordinary (and entirely false) idea that students can control every single aspect of their lives

The ‘Job-Ready Graduates’ bill is a charming piece of legislation featuring a fun little decree that any local student (who is, in theory, attending university on a government subsidised Commonwealth Supported Place)  who fails more than half of their first year subjects will lose any and all government funding. To continue their studies, this student must then pay the same mind-boggling fees currently paid by international students in Australia. This legislation is built upon the extraordinary (and entirely false) idea that students can control every single aspect of their lives. Further, this legislation overlooks the impact of teaching, and where poor-quality university educators can impact the educational outcomes of their students.  While the nation constantly laments the poor quality of primary and secondary teachers, it seems that the quality of teaching at a tertiary level (and the impact of this quality on failure rates) falls beyond the national and government lines of sight. With this legislation, it seems accountability falls entirely on the students, while the universities themselves get off scot-free. With this accountability combined with the significant financial costs, suddenly the stakes are way higher, and we tell students don’t fail or else you’re out. 

When we tell young people that there’s no room for mistakes at university, we tell them they aren’t worthy of second chances. We tell that that unless they have plenty of money in their pockets, they aren’t allowed to let anything that exists in their lives impact on the essay they’re producing for a first-year Philosophy class, or the weekly quiz in Introduction to Biology. We tell kids who might have doubts, genuine or otherwise, about their ability to succeed at university, ‘Hey, you know what? Maybe just don’t bother extending your education. We don’t think you’re worth it’. 

Education is recognised as a fundamental human right. In a nation like Australia, we are in a position to afford that right to everyone, and each person should always have the opportunity to further their education. The ‘Job-Ready Graduates’ legislation might slightly improve failure rates at universities, but whatever slight reduction in failure rates will not encourage more young people to attend university or take risks in their learning and life. Failure will continue to eat away at universities, while the elephant remains comfortably ignored in the corner of the room and we are forced to believe that when it comes to university, unless you have the funds, you aren’t allowed to have second chances. 

Celina Phillips is currently studying a Bachelor of Arts. She still hopes to find a career that allows for drinking at 11am.

Support Et Cetera

Et Cetera is maintained by unpaid student editors and volunteers. Despite their hard work, there are ongoing costs for critical website maintenance and communications. Et Cetera is not linked to any specific university, and as such, is unable to access funding in the way most campus publications are able to.

Given our primary audience is university students, we appreciate not all of our readers are in a position to contribute financially.

This is why Et Cetera's survival relies on readers like you, who have have enjoyed, or been challenged, by our work. We appreciate every dollar that is donated.

Please consider supporting us via our PayPal, by clicking the button below:

More from Recalibrate