Just Pass Everyone

Australian universities face a government prohibition on failing grades.

[Editor’s note: A version of this article was original published in the Spectator magazine (UK).]

All political lives end in failure,” said British politician Enoch Powell, a proposition amply corroborated by his own career. Scholars are vulnerable to a similar fate. To paraphrase anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, academics can be certain of two things: Someday, they will all be dead, and ultimately, they will all be proven wrong. (Sahlins’s tip for a successful scholarly career—make sure the first precedes the second.)

Even superstars fail. In a classic Nike advertisement, basketball legend Michael Jordan confesses to missing more than 9,000 shots and losing almost 300 basketball games in his career. “Twenty-six times,” he says, “I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot—and missed. I’ve failed over and over again in my life.” Then, after a pause, he delivers the line that has attracted millions of people to view his advertisement on YouTube: “And that is why I succeed.”

Jordan’s message is motivating and inspiring, but it’s also worrying. If failure is essential to success, then what are the prospects for our current crop of students who have never experienced failure of any kind?

If failure is essential to success, then what are the prospects for our current crop of students, who have never experienced it?No school student is held back a year, summer-school repeats are rare, and “A” is becoming the most typical university grade. What happens when these students move out of education, where success is the norm, to a world in which failure is ubiquitous? Never having had to deal with setbacks, never having failed at anything, will they have the capacity to cope? Down here in Australia, where I live and teach, we will soon find out.

Over the past 20 years, government policy has encouraged the number of students studying in Australian universities to explode. The highest-ranked institutions have swept up the best-prepared applicants, forcing the less prestigious universities to lower their entry standards.

Not surprisingly, many of these poorly prepared students are finding themselves unable to complete their courses. Dropout rates have climbed to record levels.

Under the rules governing accreditation, Australian universities have a legal requirement to ensure that the students they admit have the educational background and teaching support to complete their courses. It appears that universities have flaunted this requirement, so the government has stepped in.

In a daring display of its unshakeable commitment to the academic success of its constituents, the federal government has introduced legislation that could revolutionize, or perhaps obliterate, the way we understand the concept of failure. Call it the “No Student Left Behind—Especially If They’ve Failed” act. It’s an ambitious move, guaranteeing the total eradication of that ghastly “F” word from the Australian educational system: failure.

The Australian government is mandating that university students who score less than 50 percent in their exams will be entitled to a slew of educational life-savers. University-funded tutoring, counselling, examination do-overs, special exams, and extended deadlines are all on the table.

With these bountiful resources at their disposal, no students will ever face the sting of failure again.

And to ensure universities are as invested in the success of their students as the government, a hefty fine of $18,780 per student will be introduced for those institutions that fail to help their students rise above the 50 percent benchmark.

Australia is mandating that university students who score less than 50 percent will be entitled to a slew of educational life-savers.If Dante were alive, he might have added a tenth circle to his Inferno for the university administrators who will have to deal with this fiscal sword of Damocles. Instead of cramming more students into lecture halls and labs, universities will have to find funds for an army of tutors, counsellors, and exam monitors. But worry not, for the education minister has spoken: “Universities should be helping students to succeed, not to fail.”

It’s a comforting thought, almost reminiscent of a fairytale ending. It gives a cozy sense of assurance that the government is there, always ready to sweep in and replace the big bad wolf of failure with the benevolent fairy godmother of success. But will it work?

Economist Tim Harford says it won’t. In his book Adapt: Why Success Always Follows Failure, Harford argues that messing up is central to learning. Students gain more from mistakes, blind alleys, and dead ends than from success. Failures give students the opportunity to “pick themselves up, dust themselves off and start all over again.”

Such resilience is essential because becoming an expert is a long process: at least 10,000 hours, says Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. Expertise takes a long time to acquire because, outside universities, 50 percent is not nearly good enough. The real world has much higher standards.

Businesses will collapse if their accountants are only 50 percent accurate, computer programs that work only half the time are useless, and no one would be happy if surgeons fluffed half their operations. A 10,000-hour apprenticeship provides plenty of opportunities for students to learn from their errors, and everyone knows that practice makes perfect.

Failing is not only essential to honing one’s skills, but it also provides the chance to cultivate oneself (“Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”). The character traits forged by experiencing and overcoming failure are necessary for success in any field.

Tenaciousness, resilience, drive, perseverance, and the ability to delay gratification while working toward a distant goal are just as crucial in achieving success as is intelligence. Psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth calls this combination of character traits “grit.” It comes from confronting failure and overcoming it. Without failure, progress is impossible.

Will a degree retain its lustre when passing becomes a mundane occurrence rather than a reward for hard work?It may sound cynical, but universities, faced with high costs and potential fines, may be tempted to take the easy way forward and pass every single student. Will a university degree retain its lustre when passing becomes an expected, almost mundane occurrence rather than a reward for hard work, grit, and resilience? If everyone is a winner, is anyone winning anything at all?

Of course, these are long-term concerns, and our politicians need help thinking beyond the next election campaign. They look forward to offering voters a world where failure ceases to exist and success requires no effort. A world in which every student gets a degree just for showing up.

It’s an idyllic vision that might catch on across the globe. Imagine a future in which everyone gets a shot at the American Dream, even if their exam scores are below 50 percent; a time in which the “School of Hard Knocks” has shut its doors forever. Fans of Horatio Alger protagonists, the stoic pioneers who defined the ethos of hard work and success through perseverance, will be turning in their graves.

The moral of the story is that university failure is on the brink of extinction. At least, down under it is.

But this trend is not just in Australia. The philosophy of keeping students happy by eliminating failure is also spreading across the United States. Grade-inflation has become more and more pronounced, with “A” grades now the average in many schools, and grades of “D” and “F” almost nonexistent. There is also the more recent phenomenon of “contract grading,” which is a way of rewarding students on their claimed effort rather than their demonstrated learning.

Both in the U.S. and Australia, it’s easy for many students to coast through to their degrees without much effort and never experiencing failure. This approach is pleasant for the faculty and profitable for the institutions, but it leaves students fragile when they face a world unlike the cocoon of education.

This extraordinary development will have vast repercussions for education, success, and the very nature of our universities. Of course, we want our students to succeed, but passing every student will ensure just the opposite. By preventing students from experiencing failure, we will keep them from gaining the self-confidence that comes from overcoming it.

If we want young people to be able to handle life’s inevitable slings and arrows, then, for their own sake (and for the sake of the nation), we must let them fail.

Steven Schwartz has served as vice-chancellor (president) of Murdoch University (Perth), Brunel University (London), and Macquarie University (Sydney).