If I saw him barely half a dozen times, Kevin remains wedged in my memory. He had signed up for a weekly tutorial group I taught—this was in a second-year unit of an arts degree at one of Australia’s top eight universities. Kevin was enrolled as an indigenous student, and he was receiving the best tertiary education our nation had to offer. At least, that’s what was supposed to be occurring.
Class attendance in the subject was strong, although we hardly saw Kevin. Sitting in only three tutorials all year, he missed twenty-one tutorials without explanation. His lecture attendance was worse. Of the twenty-six lectures given annually in our subject, he skipped twenty-four. I knew this because I always sat by the single door just inside the compact lecture theatre, ticking a roll as students entered. Kevin attended only the unit’s introductory first lecture, and made a noisy arrival halfway through another lecture in second semester.
His persistent absences led our department to make efforts to discuss things with Kevin and see if there was a difficulty we might help him with. Letters were sent asking him to see us, and advising him that his studies were at risk. There was no response. I telephoned and left a message with a family member. Still no reply.
This essay appears in November’s Quadrant.
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By October’s final assessment, Kevin had assignments outstanding. Students in the subject were to complete two essays and give a class paper, putting in a written version of it for grading. Kevin submitted neither essay, nor had he requested extensions on any of them.
Kevin missed the scheduled date to deliver his class paper, arriving at another tutorial late in the year and saying he would give his paper that week. This was inconvenient. Other things were to be covered, and we were squeezed for time. Mind you, Kevin’s talk was brief, disorganised and patchy. From comments made in class discussion, other students were displeased. They noticed he relied on sweeping generalisations without supporting evidence.
When handed in afterward, the text of Kevin’s class paper consisted of a single garbled paragraph, unpunctuated, fraught with poor spelling, and written entirely in lower case letters. He had even doodled at the base of the page. There were no references, and the whole thing appeared to have been written spontaneously without background reading or other preparation. It was also 1400 words short of the minimum word count.
On top of these deficiencies, I was concerned because Kevin’s prose and handwriting were of Year 7 standard at best. How had he completed secondary school? He had an evident literacy problem, if not other learning difficulties, and was in need of remedial teaching. An assessment of his reading and writing skills was needed. Why hadn’t this occurred?
Over in the faculty office they were aware of Kevin’s case. When he delivered his class paper he might have made a point of claiming great disadvantage due to his ethnicity, although Kevin enjoyed significant benefits over his fellow students. He was a Koori supported under a special government initiative. His fees were covered by the Australian taxpayer, and he had been assigned a subsidy for books and course materials. As well, Kevin received a modest living allowance, again thanks to the taxpayers.
Due to Kevin’s status as an indigenous student, the university kept track of him. The government and the Australian people expected every effort was being made to give such students a high-quality educational experience, and there was much support available. So we had several times reported Kevin’s continuing non-performance to the faculty.
A colleague I spoke with in faculty administration expressed frustration over Kevin’s behaviour. She said his conduct the previous year was similar. He’d made an effort only with two subjects, not attending others, and neglecting written assignments all round. Another academic had spotted, and reported, those literacy problems I’d noticed, too.
This was early in Kevin’s first year of study. He was gently offered special tuition, help preparing written assignments, variation on his assessment tasks if needed, counselling to cope with student life, a note-taker to accompany him in lectures and tutes. This wasn’t bureaucrats ticking boxes. There was genuine goodwill. People wanted to assist. Resources were available to ensure that, as an indigenous student, he was supported in his studies.
Kevin passed up on the offers. Instead, near the end of the teaching year, he submitted forms requesting special consideration due to disadvantage as an indigenous person. Kevin wanted to be excused his poor attendance, neglect in submitting assignments, and overall inadequate performance with coursework, on the grounds that he was Aboriginal and thereby entitled to special treatment. So the university waved him through first year.
Here we now were, in second year, and his behaviour was unchanged. Given that an 80 per cent class attendance was mandatory, and students were to submit all written assignments for assessment, Kevin’s fail grade in our unit was guaranteed. There was no getting around this. According to regulations, the department was obliged to fail him. He hadn’t done the assessment tasks.
A fortnight before teaching ceased, paperwork landed in my pigeonhole advising that Kevin had requested special consideration as an indigenous student when we conducted his assessment for the unit. This had worked last year, so he was trying again.
When we subsequently completed marking, Kevin did not pass the subject. We went over his case in our usual department meeting during assessments to review student performance. His was an open-and-shut case. It was neither the first nor the last time we’d dealt with an idle student; and the process followed in such circumstances was firm.
The necessary paperwork was sent along to administration, stating this student had neither submitted the main assignments required for an assessment to take place, nor met the minimum attendance required for the unit. A photocopy of the tutorial roll, his column being marked with highlighter, was attached. And we’d also kept on file a photocopy of his class paper for use as evidence if queried. So, in accordance with regulations, we allocated Kevin an “ungraded fail”.
In the meantime, Kevin appeared in the tutors’ office to pick up his class paper from me. He cheerfully apologised for his poor attendance (he’d been “very busy”), then expressed disappointment at the grade on the paper he was collecting. He assured me he did not feel we had treated him unfairly or with prejudice, but he needed to pass the subject, so would I change the mark? Kevin explained he aspired to get into the public service, preferably somewhere education-related, and being Koori he believed he was a shoo-in for whatever government body he applied for. But he couldn’t afford a “fail” grade appearing on his student record. It would ring alarm bells. So he wasn’t pleased at the very low mark for this paper, the only assignment he had submitted to us all year.
I asked Kevin why he hadn’t made an effort, attending classes and putting in at least something for each of the required assignments. Surely that was easier than placing himself under uncomfortable attention? Besides, he would have learnt much and, given we were studying Culture and Society since 1940, that knowledge might be very useful in his life and future career. An embarrassed Kevin hastened out of the office without reply.
He got the coveted pass, of course. In spite of our careful documentation detailing Kevin’s non-performance, a committee further up the administrative chain overruled the staff who were actually running and teaching the unit. The university had pushed Kevin through once more, presumably due to a fear of how fiercely the boat would rock if an indigenous student failed.
Kevin’s was the sole enrolment we had under the indigenous scheme during my spell in that department. Of course, in arts faculties you sometimes encounter over-confident students who will undertake quite demanding subjects, assuming the humanities are a breeze. They blame the university when they can’t cope, and demand special consideration during assessments. Kevin seemed another instance of this. Then, at an academic conference, I went to a session on special-needs students in tertiary education.
Writing in last May’s Quadrant, Alistair Crooks described a divide between an “in group” and everyone else (the “out group”) when discussing the practicalities of working with Aboriginal communities. He stated that through experience the “in group” will know realities never referred to in public discussion. This is because the “out group” must be reassured all is well, with government policies being smoothly implemented to achieve positive outcomes. By some tacit understanding, truth must be hidden when individual Aborigines won’t go along with programs, and regulations are broken to accommodate them. On paper all appears to run perfectly, but those working in the place know this to be a facade.
Indigenous students had been mentioned in the conference session. Nothing untoward was voiced on the afternoon, but people spoke freely at the conference dinner that evening. Cautiously, at first, then with more candour, the talk livened up. People spoke of difficulties with underperforming students, some of them surely having been pushed through secondary school without achieving required literacy standards. And nearly everyone had a gripe about administrative pressure to “soft” mark indigenous students and give higher grades than merited.
People were relieved to chat freely about problems getting them down, real problems hushed up by institutions. Gossip mounted of idle students who didn’t take their studies seriously; then at assessment time they either cried disadvantage or accused departments of tacit racism, expecting a good grade as recompense. What angered educators was how committees and administrators caved in at the slightest friction, pressing staff to “soft mark”. This defeated the entire purpose of having indigenous education programs at all.
People were frustrated with how bad student behaviour was rewarded. So much was available to support indigenous students, ensuring they received a quality education; but if individual Kooris cried prejudice so they could avoid having to learn, no one then insisted they accept the support available in order to stay enrolled. This would happen with other disadvantaged students who were struggling, such as disabled or ethnic students. Ongoing enrolment in units can be linked with their accepting help. Why not the same with Aborigines?
Everyone at the conference was clear about our aim. Education enables individuals to lift themselves out of disadvantage and make their own decisions about their futures. That’s why it is so important. Those who have not achieved the accepted standard may get loud and cranky, threatening to stir trouble, but soft marking only keeps them stuck in disadvantage and continuing dependency. They might graduate with a certificate to flash around, but, realistically, they’re not going anywhere, because they’ve learned precious little.
All our stories were subsequently topped by the co-ordinator of a respected program for indigenous students. He complained of behaviour at monthly workshops and seminars. While most students were focused on their studies, a few wouldn’t take the course seriously. And they were undermining the program.
Once he arrived to find the classroom a third empty. Pleasant weather was forecast, so the loafers had arranged to have a beach outing instead of going to class, talking other students into joining them.
Annoyed, the co-ordinator reviewed attendance. The faculty covered travel costs for rural students to attend the monthly sessions. Matching the roll against airline bookings revealed that certain students had sometimes caught their regular plane, yet had not arrived on campus. It emerged that the missing students would take a scheduled flight, then upon landing they’d head from the airport into the city to go shopping or visit relatives.
Armed with detailed records on student performance, the co-ordinator met administrators to discuss the wayward conduct of certain Aboriginal students. The bureaucrats did nothing. Students were not even rebuked for misusing funded travel. The university would not stir potential unrest by pulling up the idlers. Meeting ended.
The purpose of education is to educate people. It is not about handing out certification to anyone with sufficient influence. Nor is it an act of charity, where you give selected individuals a qualification as recompense for misfortune. Doing either of these things while omitting the education process leads to trouble.
This is just what occurred at the Ukrainian nuclear power station in Chernobyl. There were technical problems when one reactor overheated on an evening shift in April 1986. It could have been easily controlled, but the supervising manager was out of his depth. In return for his standing and activism in the Communist Party, he had been allowed to skip units during his engineering studies. In fact it came out in the subsequent investigation that he had completed barely half of the required coursework. Strings had been pulled by Soviet officials to ensure university administration waved him through. So, years later, when he had a demanding job with great responsibilities, he couldn’t cope with a simple hitch. He gave wrong instructions to staff. That led to the world’s worst nuclear accident.
Our former student Kevin was another accident waiting to happen: a very small one, but a messy accident nonetheless. I sometimes wonder how far he got before everything came unstuck. Provided he made the effort to go into work each day, Kevin might have bluffed along with routine paper shuffling, but he had no analytical skills. He was also a liability where constant reading and writing were expected. Others in the workplace would soon realise he didn’t make the grade, and his supervisors wouldn’t be pleased when he inevitably stuffed up tasks. And what of potential fall-out if Kevin landed his cherished government job over solid applicants who had honestly earned their credentials?
There have been times working in tertiary education, having witnessed campus bureaucracies expand beyond efficiency, when I’ve wondered if middle management grasps what we are meant to be doing. A decade back, a disabled student who had come to me over an enrolment matter really let rip at administration. For health reasons she had to withdraw from a unit I co-ordinated, and she intended to repeat it the next year. However, after checking her student file, an administrator offered to pass her for the incomplete unit. She didn’t want this, but the desk jockey pressed. She met a criterion. “I kept saying to him I’m not after a pass,” she told me. “I really want to learn the subject, that’s why I’m here, but he just doesn’t get it.”
Dr Christopher Heathcote, a frequent contributor, lives in Melbourne