Pass Rates

Opinion // 30.03.2017 // Curated by Ed.

Getting a Free Pass: Students are Not the Only Ones

Headlines say lecturers are feeling pressured to pass students who do not make the grade.

A student caught cheating three times was still allowed to pass the course.  We’re told that lecturers who don’t pass 85% of their students are grilled in their performance reviews.  Other students were told they were “guaranteed” a pass.  It’s not great.  For anybody, really, but mainly for students.

Success or failure in a learning experience and pass rates are co-created between the educator and the learner.  They must partner, and each has a stake and responsibility to do their part in getting the job done.  The accountability for the outcome should also be shared.  There is a magic that can and should occur in the journey.  Great teaching rewards curiosity and hard work leads to subject matter understanding and mastery.  This should be celebrated.  In fact, those talented lecturers who expand the minds, touch the hearts and change the lives of their learners need to be cherished and acknowledged much more often.

In the case of success, shared accountability comes naturally. But what happens with failure?  It is said that success has many parents, but failure is an orphan.  Nowhere has this been truer than in tertiary education.  While educators have been happy to share the glory of their learners’ successes, students have had to shoulder (and fund) their failures all alone.  Yes, academics have had their own share of free passes.


The funding and performance monitoring reforms of the late 2000s introduced a focus on course completions.  If an institution’s pass rates were significantly below their peers, it was expected Government would ask why.  As the co-funder of the learning experience, it had a right – indeed, an obligation – to ask.  How has this been so quickly translated by educators into “we have to pass all our students, otherwise, we’ll lose our funding”.  It is simply not true.

A more accurate description is “if our pass rates are substantially lower than our peers, then Government is going to want to know why”.  There are plenty of possible explanations: more first-in-family students, more part-time students, more distance students and more without complete secondary qualifications.  Yes, it’s also possible that there is some sub-standard teaching.

The view that it is always, always the student’s fault if they fail is premised on the idea that the teaching is always, always perfect.  It’s not.  For every story of students who are given a free pass, there are stories of lecturers just reading off their powerpoint slides, not taking questions, limiting office hours for student contact and simply not providing a good learning experience.

Is it expecting too much to ask institutions to accept their share of accountability for a learner’s success or failure?  Shouldn’t we be able to expect some consistency in pass rates between comparable institutions?  After all, the only ones being paid in this story are the institutions.  And, they’re told that as long as they’re about average, they’re all good.  We’re not reaching for the stars here.

But where there is smoke, there is fire.  The examples of free passes given recently do tell a story of genuine pressure on educators.  But it’s a bit more nuanced than it seems.  Let’s talk more.