Thursday 9 December 2010

Education and Failure

Ivan Illich remarks that "Education creates failure". When we consider the double-bind that students are in with regard to education, failure is rarely spoken about. Certainly not in the student prospectus. Not in the interview with tutors before admission. And yet failure is the principal risk that can render huge personal expense worse than useless ("it would have been better if I'd never gone to university").

Universities won't talk about failure because it wants the students to come (in a marketised education system - interestingly it didn't used to be like this). Students won't talk about failure because they want to appear worthy of admission and want acceptance and fear rejection. So the system gears itself up around the prohibition of talk of failure.

But for widening participation students, failure and rejection is very common: but only after they've committed themselves. The institution might take a 'hit' from this in the form of its 'retention' statistics (another construct!), but not as much as the 'hit' which the learners are subjected to. And it's not even as if 'failure' is a clean break. If a student wants to leave after having failed but wants to be accredited with a part-award for what they have passed, they often have to retake (and re-fail) the requisite number of times (and pay for it). Such regulations can only be seen as ways of protecting the revenue of the University; it is clearly not in the student's interests.

In this way, failure is tied into the double-bind the students are in. A rational discussion about the risks of failure is not possible under these conditions.

What can be done about it?

I think in making it transparent about 'what you have to do to get a degree', including up-front assignments which can be inspected before entry, a rational judgement about the risks of failure can be made. This would make the discussion about the risks of failure possible, because it would be clear what the university expects for success. It would enable students to judge when they feel they are ready to be submitted to assessment. Most interestingly, much of the counselling discussion which takes place whilst the student is on the course, could occur before the student is submitted for assessment.


Simon Grant said...

To reduce failure and dropout, a small set of requirements stand out. Universities should ensure that, before learners are accepted on a course of theirs:
1. the learner has convincingly recognised their motivations, needs and goals
2. those needs and goals are in fact properly served by the course applied for
3. the learner has no lack of requisite ability to pass the course.
What more assurance can one have of success than having sufficient ability and motivation? But it is not routinely verified at present.

Anonymous said...

I see it being mentioned that there is now some idea of a "market" for HE. However I really don't see any evidence of this in practice as the types of choices that students can make are limited (there is only one product - a degree) and the type of feedback loops that drive market dynamics are largely absent or ineffective in HE.

Its interesting that this system of loans is introduced as being appropriate for doing a degree, but not for other activities that might equally be considered ways of developing the capacity of individuals.

For example, school leavers can't take out a £18000 student loan to start their own company as a learning experience and only pay it back if its successful.

Similarly you can't take out the loan and use it to finance a journey to improve your spiritual development and only pay it back if you enjoy some form of karmic reward!

Simon Grant said...

Good point, Scott! There is clearly some special case thinking going on around higher education. You could call it "citizen development microcredit" if you like...

However, the "only pay it back if..." clauses do incur moral hazard. Do we really want people to be unsuccessful / low paid as a way of avoiding repayment?

Mark Johnson said...

You're right Scott. Why is this the case? Because the current discourse is focused on the institution's problem, not the learner's.

There's a lot to come out in the wash!!