söndag 20 mars 2011

Can a student fail at a Swedish university?

This text veers away from my ordinary texts that are usually based on personal experiences of something that happened during the past week. This text instead goes into the territory of educational politics of the Swedish university system. It was triggered by a conversation with our dinner guests yesterday (high school teacher Anna and Ph.D. Mårten).

I have, as a university teacher, met some students who are clearly out of their league at a university. I basically think everyone should have the chance to try to be a student, but some (for example people who don't like to read books) are not up to the task unless we drastically lower the bar.

Let's say I meet a third-year student who is in the process of writing his bachelor's thesis (I would meet him in the role of being his advisor) or who has almost finished his thesis (I would meet him in the role of examiner of the finished thesis). When I am examining someone's work, a student who produces a crappy thesis will hear about it from me. Although it is the student has to bear the full brunt of the crappiness of his thesis, sometimes I really feel sorry for him as I think that some of the critique should have been given by the thesis advisor at an earlier point in time, or better yet, the advisor should have given advice so that the situation (almost-finished but crappy thesis) could have been avoided in the first place.

The student in question most often fully understands the critique and furthermore realizes the extent and the scope of the mistakes he has made. He might understands much about what went wrong during his thesis work and what he should have done (earlier) in order to avoid it. At this late point in time, there is unfortunately not much to do about it but to bite the bullet and accept that the thesis will get a relatively low grade.

At other times however, the student might not accept the critique, or does not even understand it, and the problems with his thesis might be of a magnitude and a kind that any advisor would be hard pressed to "fix" no matter how much time she would have spent advising that student (barring writing the whole thesis herself). The thesis might at times represent nothing but a long line of bad judgement calls on behalf of the student. Furthermore, sometimes students have such a bad command of language that it is difficult to understand the text, and even more difficult to judge the quality of the thoughts that are in the text - somewhere. A number of questions then present themselves of which the premier one is: how can this student have made it this far in the higher education system? The next question is: what do I do now?

The question of what to do is difficult and politically sensitive, but I for sure know what I myself would have wanted to do at a number of occasions - and that is to fail the student. Do note that I didn't write that I would fail the thesis, but rather the student. Some students just don't have what it takes to be at a university and they really shouldn't. Not that they necessarily never will be able to get a university degree, but right here and right now their presence at the university is a drain on scarce resources, and no-one is happier for it except maybe (but not necessarily) the student himself.

When I reflect upon this issue, I have myself been the advisor of at least three or four such students. I a better-functioning world, someone would at some point - before they reached the third year of their studies - have told them that perhaps this whole thing (higher education) is not for them. But to say such a thing even - or especially - if formulated as "friendly advice" requires an authority figure (a teacher or so) who actually wields his authority. It furthermore requires a structure (rules, colleagues, bosses, sympathetic administrators) that fully backs that teacher up.

The alternative is an impersonal system where no one person has to take it upon himself to personally deliver the bad news, i.e. a system where a student at some point actually runs out of chances. At a Swedish university, it doesn't really matter how slow or unsuited a student is, because he will never be kicked out, and he will always receive yet one more chance (for example to write an exam). The student in question might quite quickly run into financial trouble (as you actually have to perform to be able to get new student loans), but a frugal or financially independent student can remain a student forever without actually accomplishing anything in particular. He might even wear his "opposition" down and "fix" one course after another by sheer force of will and determination and by expending enough time and energy - even if he has no talent and little knowledge of the subject at hand.

Here I'd like to invoke Neil Postman who writes that every new technology has winners and losers, and that every new technology brings pros and cons. Hopefully there are more winners than losers, and hopefully there are more pros than cons. The point here is that always giving every student one more chance, and never being able to fail a student might brings a warm, fuzzy feeling to many, but although less apparent, there are also substantial cons (disadvantages, costs) to such a practice.

Some of those costs are born by the university in terms of time and decreased job satisfaction on behalf of teachers and administrator. How much time should you spend writing an answer to the 76th e-mail from the same student and concerning the same issue? Other costs are born by fellow students as the quality of their education and the value of their degree decreases when "anyone" can get it. Some costs are born by companies who are suckered by the fine diploma and hires an ignoramus. Which again bring costs the university in terms of decreased public support and decreased confidence in the actual value of a degree ("what are spending our money on?"). Some costs are born by society in the form of more numerous, but less qualified engineers, teachers, economists (etc.) doing a shoddy job instead of fewer doing a better job.

The problem is difficult to solve and an analysis of underlying reasons is sensitive (spinelessness, conflict-avoidance? misjudged "care" for students' tender egos? ideological blindfolds? lack of (perceived) legitimate authority?). I think it is quite clear though that there are no incentives whatsoever today for any one person to make and to stand by these difficult decisions. Furthermore, it might be the case that (especially young) people in our society are not used to setbacks of any kind and would feel offended and wronged by someone pointing out (however gently and however much it was justified) that "they might just want to think it over and ask themselves if they are spending their time and efforts in the best possible way - taking into account that they have failed so miserably during (let's say) their first year at the university".

How big is the chance that we will talk about and solve this problem? How big is the chance that we will try to solve or just ameliorate them? Not very big, I would say. So in the meantime I will personally have to struggle with those (fortunately) few students who are failing and flailing and who lack the insight to realize that they are out of their league.

According to the 80-20 rule, 80% of my time as an advisor can be spent taking care of business originating from 20% of the students. It's really not that bad, but it is clear that the weakest 20% of the students will always need extra time and support - no matter how much they are already receiving. The problem is that the least able students "steal" time from the more able students who will always excel no matter how little attention or time they get from their teachers. As a teacher I would personally want to spend less time with less able students and more time with the sharpest and most ambitious students - helping them reach even higher. Less able students represent a drain on my time, on my energy and on my enthusiasm, and they will always need more support in order to make it through the educational system.

PS (March 2014). We are very polite nowadays. It's of course unacceptable to tell someone he/she is "stupid". It is also not considered acceptable to tell someone that an opinon of his/hers is "stupid". History professor Dick Harrison writes about students feeling aggrieved by facts they don't like when he teaches (the article is written in Swedish).

13 kommentarer:

  1. I agree totally! We should also be careful with allowing the students to chose non-challening tasks.

  2. I recognise this too well. And this has probably become worse during the last decades with the expansion of 'högskolor' in Sweden (and some 'högskolor' getting university status as well) with the political goal of creating a 'knowledge society' (and temporarily taking care of unemployment). The result is too many students, people who normally would do something else than studying philosophy or social sciences. The 'university' where I worked handled this by lowering the standards. Answers to essay questions could have been made with SMS. And B-level papers could use articles from Aftonbladet. Not as material for analysis, but as scientific sources. Also: verbal fights with students who think they have done well when the fact that they are even there is a worrying sign of what happens at lower levels in the educational system. 'Let them pass, let them pass, we don't have resources for this...', was the solution. It made me sick seeing how my own educational platform was corrupted, by myself.

  3. As an overdue engineering student myself, I do agree with most of which you have written in this post. While I have a great interest in what I have studied, I simply lack the aptitude to sustainably make use of my gained knowledge. I would say the same applied to most of the people that were in my program. Hefty IQ and problem solving tests should be required as an admission barrier to rigorous and prestigious university programs. Let's put the right people at the right place. Why is it so much of a taboo to insinuate that a person might have limited abilities and not, after all, reach the stars?

  4. I totally agree.Alex

  5. Another huge problem is that good students are not promoted, but pushed down into mediocrity. This happens, of course, because of the socialdemocratic mentality and the Jantelagen. Sweden and Nordic countries have to wake up if they want to be competitive in the internazional labour and academic market.

  6. "Some students just don't have what it takes to be at a university and they really shouldn't. Not that they necessarily never will be able to get a university degree, but right here and right now their presence at the university is a drain on scarce resources, and no-one is happier for it except maybe (but not necessarily) the student himself."

    So do you tell these students the truth? Do you tell them that they should do something else with their lives than devoting themselves to acedemic studies? And more importantly, do you, as a professor, use your authority to work for a political change? Do you actively try to convince TPTB that some students really are a liability, that they are draining resources, that they will have a negative influence on the society as a whole and that the current system will not be sustainable in a long term perspective?

  7. No, I don't tell them. I would want to, but no one would thank me for doing what someone, anyone should. Quite the opposite, the students would hate it, perhaps report me for "harssing" them and my own university would disavow me. The current Swedish system for financing universities takes the raw number of students into account, i.e. more students = more money. So my boss would hate me too. As I write above, what use it is to "tell the truth" if there is zero institutional backing?

    The other questions are good, but hard. I'm-just-a-cog-in-this–great-machinery you know. Trying to change things politically sounds great, but my job takes all my time and what is left I spend with my wife and kids. And writing this blog. And some other things. I can complain about it, but trying to change it isn't my mission in life.

    So I complain about it here and every chance I get at work (but tempered), but beyond that and perhaps a few other things - not much.

    I do have to say that I'm not sure about the "liability" and "negative influence on society" part. It's a little bit harsh. Let's say I'm undecided about some of your in-your-face claims.

  8. There is another issue at stake here. Swedens competetiveness in the global economy.

    If we dont support the truly able individuals how are we to continue to produce things and ideas that makes Swedish industry and companies profitable.

    And here natural sciences are the enginges of growth and change.

    How much can we, as a country, afford to invest in mediocrity at the expense of the talented and motivated?


  9. I agree with 10.14 above. Without innovative, skillful, cleaver people, we're screwed. I would have to add though that you don't *become* innovative, skillful, cleaver people just because you attend a university.

    - Some people who don't attend a university can still be innovative, skillful and cleaver.
    - Most people who do attend a university are not necessarily innovative, skillful and cleaver.
    - But innovative, skillful and cleaver people who do attend university can, in a best-case scenario, get even better training and better tool and make wonders afterwards..-

  10. I do agree with you Pargman! I am working as a lecturer in a Swedish university and I can tell you that the environment is disappointing. It doesn't allow us as a lecturer to discipline students and demand them to work hard to pass a course. You know that in Sweden students get 5 opportunities to take a resit exam when they are failed at the first or second try. If students feel unsatisfied with you (because you don't want to give them more opportunities to pass the course) then they will raise the case to their parents and their parents will bring it to someone in the management level. I am worried that in the end of the day Sweden will not have enough tough, clever, and skillful people thus it cannot compete with other developed nations.

  11. Respect for having the courage to say how things work. What you wrote, Daniel, is my experience as well. and, like you, I am also a cog in the machinery.

  12. This has been an ongoing discussion probably since long before even I was admitted to the U in 1979. How do you catch and rectify these "not apt" students before they have borrowed too much money?

    The student's financing of higher ed, is unfortunately, built on subsidies and also on our government's (whether "red" or "blue") eagerness to look good when higher ed is compared internationally.

    I remember one student who the last year of studies was told "we cannot pass you"! For the individual it is of course a disaster. The system doesn't approve of failures of this kind because you cannot borrow more money from the state and, the counter force is the teachers not wanting "to harm" the student by telling s/he the truth in an early stage - "to get out of here"!

    Despite all of this and also found in some of the comments, Sweden is actually doing pretty well! All statistics show that we are among the most successful countries on this planet.

    To me it's a sign that whatever takes place in academia is maybe not as important in society as academics think. And that is healthy sign!

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