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Don't use the 'f' (for fail) word

By Peter West - posted Wednesday, 18 May 2005


“The Dean will see you now, Mr Jones.”

“Yes, yes, thank you Mr Jones, please sit down. Would you like some special brewed coffee? The father of one of our Brazilian students sends us a bushel a month, much more than I can drink! Just move the decanter of whisky they gave me in Scotland, that’s fine. I want to talk to you about the grades you gave those students from Mongolia.”

“Well yes I thought they’d complain. But Dean, the University’s policies are quite clear. Plagiarism means that you fail. It’s on our website.”

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“Yes of course it is. This university continues the traditions of Oxford and Cambridge, though of course with flexible learning and continuous assessment, all informed by cutting-edge research and the latest technology. The University needs to give the community, and of course the government, confidence in our reputation as defenders of academic rigour and excellence.”

“That’s why I failed those students. It was a plain case of plagiarism. They all said the same thing in that essay on business ethics. And it was all stolen from the web. Doesn’t this university believe in standards?”

“Yes, yes. Mr Jones. Of course we do! But I was going to speak to you anyway. Your failure rate is rather high, isn’t it, I mean compared with most of your colleagues?”

“Hmmm. It’s well within faculty guidelines. If students can’t write proper English sentences, don’t know what a paragraph is, and just pretend to read one or two books, what hope have they got if they don’t come to lectures? Aren’t we just making a pretence of learning if they aren’t learning anything? Most of them don’t even want to learn.”

“Mr Jones, please don’t trouble yourself marking their English. If we get obsessed with students writing a perfect English essay we could be accused of academic elitism. University is for the great unwashed these days, you know. Look, if they can’t write, just send them off to Academic Writing, or whatever that’s called since we out-sourced it to the school across the freeway. And these students really are a special case.”

“I see. All students are special, but some are more special than others. Aren’t we supposed to treat all students equally, Dean?”

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“Oh of course we are. But these students have, you know, special problems. Foreign students have kept this faculty alive. We would have to have sent quite a few staff packing if it weren’t for those delightful faces that are so much more interesting really, than the great mass of apathetic students we get so often! Especially from the western suburbs. Mongolia doesn’t have the tradition of academic excellence that local students have. They don’t have the same religious beliefs, either. So their ethos, or for that matter, their business ethics seem to be rather different.”

“Like grab as much money as you can, work hard to pay no tax at all, casualise the staff, and if all else fails move offshore? That sounds like some of the local companies I know.”

“Yes, yes. But Mr Jones, we feel you are being too hard on these students. We need to keep failure rates low, while still maintaining academic standards. And making sure that staff assess fairly and forthrightly, taking the full circumstances into account: Proclaiming the best that has been thought and known, while upholding the right of every student to study as she or he sees fit. We can’t interfere with their unique culture and traditions, they would call us white racists, and then where would we be? So we will ask Miss Timkins to review the marks for Business Ethics II. I suspect that the result will be more in line with the marks currently given by your colleagues.”

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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