The Universities

Soft Marking and Indigenous Education

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


9 thoughts on “Soft Marking and Indigenous Education

  • johanna says:

    I’ve seen this phenomenon both in universities and in the APS. In the long run, it disadvantages Aborigines, because nobody knows whether the qualifications are genuinely earned or not. The same applies to all ‘affirmative action’ programs.

    The other thing is, some of these students could perform well if they were given a kick up the tail, instead of being allowed to coast. That is not doing them any favours, either.

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    I agree, Johanna. The only things we value are those we have to work for.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    I taught primary school for a couple of years in a remote rural village in the then Territory of Papua New Guinea. The children I taught seemed to be absolutely comparable to Aboriginal children in remote rural Australian settlements except they had no easy means of travelling beyond a few kms from their villages, ie no roads or vehicular transport. Nor did they or their parents receive any government handouts either in cash or in kind.
    The hunger of these kids for education was remarkable. Absenteeism was virtually unheard of, except for genuine illness. Disciplinary problems were unheard of. The kids seemed to reflect the normal bell curve of intelligence, and worked very hard. Their parents were totally invested in their children’s education.
    There were at that time no left-wing activists patronising the people as occurs here in Australia, and most teachers I knew who lived in close contact with their villagers had nothing but respect and admiration for their people.
    We saw no need whatsoever to treat them as disadvantaged or “victims” in any way, and the kids performed brilliantly to the best of their ability.
    It’s a pity that Thomas Sowell is not more widely read in this country. His opinion of “affirmative action” and its advocates is beyond contemptuous.

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    Reminds me of a story. An acquaintance of mine (call him Bill) went to New Guinea to work as a school teacher, When he arrived at the village he was assigned to, he was greeted by the Head Man and shown where the school would be. His first task, as it turned out, was to build the school.
    Fortunately, before becoming a teacher Bill had been in the building game; and was a most practical man. So he set to and organised the village into teams for the various tasks, ordered materials, and supervised construction of the classroom and dormitories. He noticed also that the villagers held the copra merchants who came to buy their copra in fairly low esteem, because they ran a cartel and did not compete with one another on price to seller.
    So Bill organised the building of a copra store and set up a village cooperative. When the store was sufficiently stocked, he put four of the heftiest students the school had in charge of a boat to take the copra down the Fly River (?) to Lae, and to haggle directly with the Chinese copra buyers there. They, being no strangers to such a task did so, and returned up the river with the cash proceeds, armed in case of bandits, and distributed the money to the villagers, less commission, who reportedly were most pleased.
    Eventually Bill had to leave, for the sake of his daughter’s university education. He bought a house in Canberra and got a job teaching high school there. But by the time he left the village, its school was running the copra-buying cooperative, and doing all the marketing from that stage on, as well as playing its educational role.
    In Canberra, teenagers of exactly the same age as his New Guinean copra-traders, were having to put up their hands in his class and ask his permission to go to the toilet. He got demoralised, and eventually resigned.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    Amazing what supposedly primitive people can do when you don’t patronise them.

  • Alistair says:

    I’ve worked with Aborigines as you describe them in both the private and public sector. They fill quotas – and that is the extent of their job description. Everyone just works around them and breaths a sigh of relief when the go AWOL – again.
    These are the Aborigines who will soon have a “voice” and be running “nations”. However, they will employ white people who will actually do the work, while they skive off and “work at home” – again.

  • wayne.cooper says:

    There is a different but not unrelated problem in current tertiary education – the cashed-up overseas student who is not allowed to fail. While doing an LLM at Sydney University in the early years of this century my classmates numbered among them quite a few students from Asia and Africa, few of whom had any fluency in English. One African student gave a class presentation which could not be understood as English by anyone else and handed in a single piece of paper with scribbled writing on half of one side. For this sorry effort he received a cool 83%. Presumably he graduated and is regarded as an eminent jurist in his country of origin.

  • Greg Williams says:

    It’s not all bad news. I work at a school which provides scholarships to indigenous students. One of those students was Head Girl a few years ago. She graduated, obtained her degree and is now usefully employed doing great work. Another graduated about 7 years ago, went to uni, passed with flying colours and now runs the indigenous programme here at my school. She is an outstanding young woman and a joy to work with. No doubt a lot of what has been described in this article is true, but there are plenty of hard-working, aspirational and talented indigenous people out there in the work force. I taught the current WA State Treasurer his Year 12 Maths. He was a good, hard-working student then, and, although, politically, he is not on the team I barrack for, I think he is doing an excellent job here in WA. You only have to look to the AFL to see the joy some of the indigenous players bring to the fans, and see how they present as role models to their peers. I guess what I am saying it is not all bad news. There are plenty of indigenous stars out there.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    As with Africa, and PNG, tribalism remains a curse of Aboriginal people everywhere. Regrettably, the positives of the system are becoming increasingly irrelevant in the modern world in which these people must live and prosper, while the negatives make it very difficult, if not impossible, for individuals to break out into the modern world.
    Here, as well as in the United States, young people who strive to do well in school and to pursue the advanced educational opportunities that are available for them, often tend to be ostracised by their peers for “acting white”. Such social pressures are hard to overcome. Those who do surmount the difficulties and obtain worthwhile and well-rewarded careers often find themselves with a swarm of n’er-do-well relations demanding that they share in accordance with ancient cultural obligations. In PNG, this “wantok” system can be quite nasty.
    Yet the patronising white progressives demand that these poisonous systems be respected and maintained. Abominable.

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