Failure to Fail

Why are students no longer flunking university? Is it their brains, or their wallets?
My son, our middle child, graduated from McGill University recently, and one day just before the ceremony, when we were sitting down to breakfast, he started regaling me with tales of university idleness and duplicity. His alma mater’s reputation as the “Harvard of the North” was somewhat dubious, he pointed out, given how easy it was for a shrewd student (not him, of course) to wrangle accommodations from profs there — to procure extensions for essays, to retake tests, to basically get by. It wasn’t the first time he’d talked about the subject, and, boys being boys, soon we’d come up with an idea for a reality show called The Bum’s B. A.

The Bum’s B. A worked like this: four students (preferably male) share an apartment on campus and compete to see who can do the least work possible and still pass his year. Independent observers would tabulate relative idleness; hidden cameras would make sure no secret cramming was going on. Other subtleties: any efforts in pursuit of academic success would count against you, but not labour in pursuit of idleness — e.g., if you borrowed “a girl’s notes,” the reading of those notes would count as actual work, but the borrowing wouldn’t. Plus you could recoup the studying penalty by going to a movie, say, or getting drunk the night before an exam. The more we talked, the more enthusiastic we got.

“We can’t do it till I graduate, though,” my son said. “No, till they mail me my diploma.”

The university would have to be in on it, of course, I said. As a kind of sociology experiment.

He gave me a look. He was right, I conceded; if they knew, they’d probably just flunk out everybody in the apartment.

His look grew stranger. “What are you talking about? Nobody flunks out at McGill.”

I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right. “Come again?”

“I don’t know anybody who’s ever flunked out of McGill. Dropped out, sure, but not flunked out. They don’t let you flunk. They put you on probation, or give you extra time, or let you take your degree in six years instead of four. I know one guy who took seven years. That’s even better for them — more money.”

“But why would a university do that?”

“The tuition money and the government funding. Plus they’ve got a ton of students coming from the States they make a fortune from. They don’t want them thinking there’s a risk that they’ll get thrown out if they fail.”

“But I thought the whole thing with McGill was the high standards,” I said. (I may have been getting shrill.) “How hard it was to get into.”

“Right. Hard to get into. Harder to get kicked out of.” He looked at me. “Seriously, I can’t think of anyone who ever flunked out.”

Breakfast and the conversation frittered away at that point, but I couldn’t shake the sense of scandal. It wasn’t just that this derailed our reality show (if nobody flunked, how could you pick a winner? ), or the thousands of dollars we’d spent ourselves sending him to the “Harvard of the North.” It was the larger principle involved. If it was impossible to fail, what did passing amount to?

Not that I was an innocent. I’d read Ivory Tower Blues, by James Côté and Anton Allahar, two professors at the University of Western Ontario who had chronicled what they dubbed the crisis of “credentialism” at Canadian and American schools. They’d argued that the new sense of entitlement among undergraduates, unchallenged by college administrations, had resulted in a proliferation of empty degrees, inflated grades, and professors cowed by student evaluations (not to mention calls from parents and threatened lawsuits) into easy marking and buying cheese Danishes for their classes. I knew about David Weale, the University of Prince Edward Island history prof who, facing an overcrowded class, had promised students a 70 percent grade if they agreed not to show up or do any coursework at all. (Weale had twenty takers, and was subsequently “asked” to resign by the upei administration.) I knew that Côté himself had tried the same experiment at Western and found that guaranteeing students a mark of 80 percent was enough to convince virtually his whole class to walk out. And I was aware that these stories were viewed as symptoms of something deeper in the culture — a reluctance to judge today’s students negatively, to have them fail, which meant that they were being “deprived” of an important life lesson in dealing with the kind of setbacks they would eventually have to face. But I’d always thought that all this breast-beating over the “failure to fail” was largely metaphorical. I never thought it meant no one flunked out anymore.

The next morning, I sent out a simple query to every person under thirty on my email list, some fifty people: did they know anyone, or know anyone who knew anyone, out of all the students enrolled in Canadian universities (815,000 in total) who had ever flunked out? By that afternoon, I had nine answers, all remarkably consistent. The first came from the son of a friend, who had graduated from the University of Manitoba the year before and was now living in Winnipeg with a fellow graduate. “Shannon and I are stumped. It’s weird. No one comes to mind right away. We’ll ask around and let you know if we can find anyone.” The second email was from a fourth-year phys. ed. student at Waterloo. “At lunch I told a lot of my friends about your email. We all know kids who have taken extra time to graduate, and who have goofed off to the point of doing zero work, and of course some who’ve dropped out. But nobody who was actually told to leave.” The third email was from my niece, a third-year psychology major at York University: “It is very difficult to get kicked out of university. They put you on academic probation and continue to take your money. I do know one kid who took off a year because of the situation. But he didn’t flunk out.”

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30 comment(s)

AnonymousMarch 14, 2008 18:39 EST

Even as a recent uni graduate, I'm not exactly sure what the right answer here is. Although I did meet two people throughout my university career, who did indeed flunk, but both might confirm the impossibility to fail idea. The first was a fully-fledged 18 year old alcoholic who got a zero in everything in his first year. The kid was thrown out, but his lawyer father managed to legally change his son's name, which erased academic failings, and then send him off to a rival uni. The second was a girl who was thrown out of her science degree for poor grades. The only way to get back in, which she eventually did, was sign an academic contract that promised a certain grade point avg. She had to restart though and pay all over again, however, this didn't seem to matter to her as her mom worked for the uni and she got a whopping 50% discount.

I managed to graduate in exactly four years, dodging at every turn the fine print which would make me pay for another year. If you want to work hard at university, you can get a good eduction. Doesn't mean that all the high school idiots you thought you escaped won't sit right beside you.

AnonymousMarch 17, 2008 10:30 EST

Back in the 80's, I was flunked out of the University of King's College in Halifax, NS. More for not passing in work than getting bad grades.

In fact, I ticked off the College when I went and sat for my verbal exam and did well but refused to submit the required papers. The result was I was banned for one year (maybe two) from all Canadian universities that subscribed to the same accreditation council.

They did the right thing and booted me out for a year. Would most universities now do the same thing? I doubt it because then they would lose my money.

AnonymousMarch 17, 2008 10:35 EST

I don't know where you were looking, but a friend of mine got expelled from U of T for failing the same calculus class 3 times. Feel free to e-mail me if you'd his name to interview him!!! Now he can't attend any university in Ontario, and would likely be declined at any other university in Canada. Fortunately for him (although not so fortunate for our education system's terribly low standards) he was still able to go to Algonquin College in Ottawa to do a technical program.

GFMarch 17, 2008 12:59 EST


It's all about bums in seats. Retention. Image. I work in a university writing center and am assessed for my—wait for it—"customer service."

A drastic decline in public funding has created a circus of corporate branding at universities. Trent uses an image of a smiling student in an African village (give now: great white hopes need a student centre). Queen's has the nerve to put a homeless person on their fundraising literature.

Nifty hyper-text, an oblifatory dusky Other in the brochure.

Who gives a damn about standards?

That's downright modernist, medieval in fact... an elitist Ivory Tower artefact.

I am a fierce supporter of access... yet believe in standards. Let everyone in... but they have to achieve to graduate.

HOWEVER, ultimately, does it matter that someone can tell the difference between "it's" and "its" ? And too much critical thinking might undo the mighty engine of consumption... or, for that matter, an increasingly privatized university system where the kustomer iz allways rite...

KOMarch 18, 2008 18:28 EST

I'm not sure how my experience fits into the concept of "flunking out", but I thought it would at least be worth a mention.

Six years ago, I began my post-secondary career at the U of A in the Faculty of Science. Although my high school marks had always been A-range, they had always come to me fairly easily and as such my work ethic was quite underdeveloped. At the end of my first year, I received a spirit-crushing GPA of 4.4 (on the 9 scale), including two of the aptly titled "you failed, asshole" grades in Chem courses. I was then informed by the University that I would be put on "academic probation", which meant that the following year I would have to earn a 2.0 (now on the 4 scale) to be allowed to stay on at the U of A. That second year, I earned myself a GPA of 1.9, and consequently I was told that I was Required To Withdraw, with no chance of return.

That last point was severely emphasized by the student councilor, which caused me to question whether I was cut out for academia. After one year off working retail, two years at a local college and a lot of growing up, I contacted the Registrar's office and reapplied to the faculty that I probably should have started out in- Arts. Lo and behold, I was accepted (with a few conditions) and I plan to graduate in April 2009. So I suppose you could say that I flunked out, but somehow the story found a happy ending.

I guess I came away from the article wondering how I could have ended up in my situation when it seems so difficult to fail, but at the same time it was the failure I experienced that was the cold water wake-up call I needed to really get my act together. Maybe I just needed to learn the hard way; and since I have a hard time believing that I'm the only person out there like that, I hope the universities learn to deal with poor students accordingly so that they might also get the kick in the ass they need to figure themselves out.

AnonymousMarch 19, 2008 10:54 EST

Excellent piece. Professors at our universities are told to manipulate grades to ensure there are paying students in the seats. Instead of evaluating individuals, profs have to ensure a certain percentage of students have this grade or that grade - and rather than give out failing grades to those who deserve them, profs will boost marks to make sure only a certain number will fail. A prof friend of mine says she is disgusted by how she has to manipulate marks. No wonder students are entitled, spoiled and poorly educated.

AnonymousMarch 19, 2008 12:00 EST

My own experience was the same as "KO", above. I entered U of T with a 4-year scholarship and very high marks, but no personal discipline. By second year, I was skipping classes and exams and not handing in work. They put me on academic probation, and when I didn't perform any better, I had to sit out for a year. I returned, under the same probationary status, and did not change my ways; had I not finally dropped all my courses before withdrawal deadline, I would have failed and been sent down permanently. It's been many years since - I have no idea whether they'd still let me return, since technically, I'm still just on hiatus.

AnonymousMarch 19, 2008 13:08 EST

The timing of this article is quite peculiar, in that in hinges directly upon a day in which I decide whether to "IP" on the last five courses of my degree or to soldier on through, complete my remaining 21 assignments in the next two weeks of school, and walk away with a degree I do not feel comfortable with earning.
A lot of my decision rests on the Sk. Government budget announcement this afternoon, which may decide for me. They may make an announcement regarding student loans that will affect my ability to continue school.
Just to be clear, should I neglect to finish my assignments, I will be turfed from my professional program but not from the university. I'm a little different in that I am nearly finished my degree and prior to this year had a fairly solid academic record. It seems not to be a matter of choice, however, as it is really hard to get kicked out. Really hard.
Interesting article.

AnonymousMarch 19, 2008 16:48 EST

I attended Mc.Gill over forty years ago. Then, people did 'flunk out'. Because I came from an under privileged background, it was a real challenge for me to finish the degree course. Although I had to repeat a couple of courses in third year, I did obtain my degree within the required time period.
Now, whether my degree was of any benefit to me, given the fact that Mc.Gill caters to those of the upper class, ergo, tries to deter or discourage those they have judged unequal, is another topic. In fact, it is a good topic for another article in Walrus.
Thank you for the opportunity to voice my comment.

AnonymousMarch 20, 2008 11:01 EST

In regards to failing out…I sat for quite a while and tried to determine if I knew anyone who had. I went to Queen’s, on scholarship, for my undergraduate degree so I supposed I would not be that different than a mentality than Mcgill. I did know people who were there at there parents expectation; skimmed by in engineering or commerce until they found the guts to say “no, mom and dad, I want to do ‘X’ program”. I am living in the United States now, so I asked my roommate, who is from southern California the questions. She knew people who have failed.

Then it hit me. I FAILED! I literally failed my first semester at a Dalhousie Graduate program. I had to leave, I didn’t want to, I was out! Yet I didn’t even think of it until half way though the article and comments. This is because failing doesn’t mean one thing. It didn’t mean I wasn’t good enough, or that I was stupid or lazy. I was having a difficult time with a personal relationship and my health. I was unexpectedly not up to the job and I didn’t get a second chance. Is that failing?

Today I pursue a medical degree in the field of natural medicine. I need all the skills that earned me scholarship an graduate acceptance, however I need something more. Compassion. An ability to see a whole being. That a person is not a pass or fail. They have strengths and weakness and should be directed on those strengths. That’s a lesson I learned hard being a unforgiving academic setting. So then failing was good in that if directed me toward a wonderful career path. It was bad , in that I could have completed the graduate program and done it well if there was acceptance that people (in that case me) are not machines and there’s not one way to learn.

Now there is a particular tone to this particular story that seems to forgive lenience in universities. To the contrary. I actually agree that there is a fear of chastising “slackers” and a pandering to more corporate investment and mentality that to process more students is good for the university checkbook. Unfortunately, in many cases university then sell themselves short as parodies of the learning that took place in their earlier selves. I wonder how much of this is the result of the allowance for corporate interest in our learning institutions? More directly I think this practice of turning out degreed individuals is due to the public will and mindset. Universities are supposed to be places of higher learning. People ought to come out with a larger world view and the ability to engage on a career discourse related to subject of concentration. More and more however there is not room to learn “extraneous things” or to cultivate the individual. This is largely left the “party experience” and less to the time spent in cultural, historical or creative arts classes. What I’m attempting to elucidate is that even though universities have made more exceptions to allow people to continue to stay, there is not addressing why they might be failing out or what a “degreed” person can be expected to know and have learned .

I think we all need to take responsibly for what we want out of education, what a degree to means, and for illumination of what a universities name stands for.

This is an article about standards. I think failing out is not about the “failing”, but about “failing what?”

Sarah BoydMarch 22, 2008 09:03 EST

This article makes a good point, but it misses some important ones as well. The "no failing" attitude begins in high school—in my brief career as an education student, I was told by other teachers that they were not allowed to fail students, no matter how abysmal their performance.

There is also the fact that, by not failing students, universities can continue milking them for money. Teitel touches on this, but not strongly enough. Universities routinely fail to provide students with support for learning disabilities or health problems, which impedes their academic progress. Students are then offered an impossible choice: continue paying thousands in tuition, or quit and essentially resign oneself to a lower standard of living, for life. Since one needs an undergraduate degree to work in almost any field now, students are required to mortgage their future to secure it.

Teitel makes it sound like this "no failing" business works out to the students' advantage, but I very much doubt that. All it does is contribute to the glut of unnecessary degrees in the employment market, and compel students to take their focus off learning and on to paying the schools—and if their grades plummet because they have two jobs, and they graduate without learning anything, at least they know they won't fail.

AnonymousMarch 25, 2008 13:34 EST

I have the dubious distinction of being the parent of a young man who not only failed his first year at a Canadian university but went on to fail the first term at a community college where he went to 'find himself' and bring up his grades.

Upon graduating with a 98% iin computer studies and winning the IT award at his high school my son felt that the obvious choice for him was computer science in university. He chose to attend Ryerson University and absolutley hated it. He even managed to fail Computer Science 1 the second time while on probation in the spring term.

The following year he applied to a couple of community colleges in the Toronto area that offer a General Arts program which assist students who either had dropped out of highschool or failed to achieve adequate grades to access university. He chose George Brown College and attended the first term only to fail 3 of the four classes.

I discovered this when I received a chque in the mail in the first week of January - we had been refunded the second term tuition, with no accompanying letter, explanation or other notes.

So, I disagree with Mr. Teitel. It appears that those who have no ambition to succeed can certainly fail and the support mechanisms to help those who are floundering are simply not in place at our post secondary institutions.

AFMarch 27, 2008 11:55 EST

Students no longer flunk out of college. So what? What are the consequences? Teitel provides no answers.

His is a knee-jerk reaction, the last in a long line of unreflective pieces about education and the old generation bashing the young generation for being different.

Somehow, he implies, the lack of failed students is bad. Why? Has Canadian society become less educated in the last half century? Hardly; quite the opposite. Would Canadian society be a better society with a higher number of failed students? I don't think so.

Sure, the Canadian education system has lots of problems, some of them mentioned by Teitel's informants: The revenue-driven "management" (formerly administration) of universities, the unjustified fear of lawsuits, the poor system of both student and professor evaluation, the unreflective rush to digital media, a tuition system that hurts the poor and helps the middle-class.

But Teitel is not concerned about these problems. Instead, he begins the article with the wrong question and ends up with useless answers—unless giving some students, alumni and professors a platform for venting their frustrations about the system is seen as useful.

It is too bad the Walrus editors, who usually display better judgment, did not dare to tell Teitel that he had failed and should start his assignment from scratch.

OttProfMarch 29, 2008 11:33 EST

I teach at an Ottawa University. I can attest to the fact that this state-of-affairs is the reality among many students. I was specifically told to raise marks after one test I gave came back with a poor average mark.

As to AF who commented that there is no problem here and that Mr. Teitel "asked the wrong question", that there is no harm done to Canada, I can vouch for the fact that students' reading comprehension and writing skills are dismally poor and are deteriorating. There is not an understanding of the difference between "their" and "there", between "its" and "it's".... The more egregious problem is a feeling of entitlement amongst the student body. Many feel they deserve A's but feel they do not have to study to get them. That translates into something detrimental to society, AF. Hard work and incentive are worth fostering, AF. I only wish I could have spoken to Mr. Teitel, too. There is a lot I could tell him about "higher education" today. This was an excellent and accurate piece. Walrus editors displayed fine judgement, AF. There is much more to be understood and remedied, actually.

JaneApril 01, 2008 08:31 EST

As a Canadian living in the US, I was happy to see someone question the distinction of "Harvard of the North" going to McGill. I would love to find out who was responsible for that brilliant piece of publicity (surely not a drop-out from the Canadian University system). The only Canadian University most in the US are aware of is McGill. I have never in 12 years living in the US met anyone who can name another university in Canada or, who didn't mention Harvard in the same breath as McGill.

AnonymousApril 01, 2008 21:00 EST

I work at the U of A and we have hundreds of students every year that are RTW (Required to Withdraw). Yes they can appeal, yes many are successful, and yes some will eventually come back.

But a lot don't. Across the university it might be hundreds a year.

Re: the student assessments, it's too bad professors don't have to take a course in pedagogy. I'll leave it at that and give the various academics that were quoted in the article a free pass.

And really, the young funny slang 'flunking out' has a youthful fun connotation? Wow. That must mean that young funny slang words are more youthful and fun that than non-slang words, like failure. Seriously wtf....

That whole part was some really shitty writing.

Lastly, the idea that universities are getting rich on these students is ridiculous. Most departments lose money per student on tuition, not make money. That whole part was lazy research and obviously never fact-checked, logic-checked, or common-f*cking-sense-checked.

Neil MacEachernApril 02, 2008 11:06 EST

As a 4th year student in the faculty of forestry at UBC, I can say with certainty that students are, in fact, flunking out... But it's not the science students.

A small faculty in a big school, the 500 undergraduates share in a unique situation: Not many of us started in forestry. About half of us began somewhere else, in economics, biology, geography, agriculture, psychology. Yes, even a few English majors made their way to south edge of campus. But not many of them have stuck around.

Lured by the interactive content- and humour-rich lecturing of John Worrall in FRST 300 (elective forestry for non-foresters), droves of arts students join the faculty every September, reliably ballooning the 2nd year cohort to greater proportions than the 1st. In January, though, the remaining few (mostly of science provenance) are left wondering what happened to their colleagues. The answer is simple: Science happened.

It's been said that in the sciences, it's easy to get 100, but hard to get 50. Your answers are right or wrong. You aren't allowed the liberty of arguing your opinion on the correctness of the Leibnizian calculus notation. You learn it, or you fail. And many do.

In a small faculty such as this, there are always second chances, but the crushing blow of a failing grade in chemistry or biometeorology or computer programming is enough to convince many that it is not for them.

Facts can be easily absorbed, but learning to manipulate procedures requires the rewiring of one's thought patterns. Everyone is capable of this, but not everyone wants to take the time. That's not to say that the arts don't necessarily do this, but it's a lot easier to fake it if you can't.

So where do the failed foresters go? I'm not sure, but presumably back to the north end of campus, where they can study at the Koerner Library (named after a forestry baron), and write about how they tried the sciences, but how it simply 'wasn't for them'.

AndrewApril 03, 2008 10:23 EST

I'm a uni student in Texas. I will admit that I know very little about Canadian education (and honestly very little about Canada period, something that I feel is very common in us Americans). Our universities face the same question though.

Unfortunately, in my university, it looks like the wallets are what keeps people from failing. People still fail, surely, I know one of my friends who did. (For the record, he was neck-deep into hard drugs, and did absolutely nothing but coke for a semester.) But far more are put on "academic probation." You pay higher tuition, have to keep your GPA above a certain grade, but most people don't fail from that point. My roommate, in fact, stopped showing up for the last quarter of a semester. Didn't take a single final, and she didn't fail out. Our uni has a policy that almost enforces that they are here for money: You can take a class as many times as you want. But if you fail out of it three times, the price of the class increases exponentially. There's no real consequence, especially when mommy and daddy are paying — which is usually the case.

In my own situation, I do the least amount of work possible. Studying waits until the night before. I get drunk at least once a week, usually more. I miss the maximum allowed days of class before my grade starts to be penalized (three to six, depending on the prof).

Yet, I'm sitting at a 'B' average. There's something wrong with that, in my mind. But I'm not going to change until they give me a reason to.

AndrewApril 06, 2008 06:02 EST

As a professor, I enjoyed the article "Failure to fail". But, it is important to distinguish failing out of a university from failing a course. In any given course, I fail those students who do not do the work that I ask of them. They represent only a small fraction of each class (about one in ten), and I have done this since I was hired without repercussions. Students who fail course are easily found, though students failed out of university are not. I do not agree that most professors live in fear of failing some students from courses. Instead our fear is that students will not take our courses if we set the bar too high. I would expect repercussions if my enrollment numbers dipped because I was overly demanding. The university may not fail out students in order to retain revenue, but professors don't fail many students in individual courses because they typically aim the level of their courses near the median. Not many students fall significantly below that level.

AnonymousApril 06, 2008 07:39 EST

I loved reading this article. I graduated from university in 2001 and teaching in 2002. In year 5 of teaching high school. I have seen kids being passed, gaining "good" grades who do not know how to read, write a paper, or reference.

In the last two years of teaching I have come to grips with the fact that they are getting into university and passing. I have (as the article has stated) had the chance to ask friends who now work in the univerisity system (teaching, TAing) what they notice. They have confirmed and witnessed kids demanding grades simply because they paid tuition. They have witnessed and know of kids parents calling deans. They know of and witnessed prof's giving grades away.
A university degree is going to become as common place as a high school diploma. It is starting to (and will) mean nothing very shortly.
The kids who go to university now are graduating and are still kids. Too much hand holding, fear of hurting their feelings, and also dealing with parents who are mad their money is being thorwn away.

Where I teach a parent went after a teacher a year later about her sons grades in a science class. She found out that her son might loose a sports scholarship and started to panic because his grades where not high enough. The student was able to re-do work (for the course he passed a year earlier). Being able to re do the work not only showed how poor his skills were (his original mark stayed) but how quickly parents go for the throat when money is the issue.

Thank you.

DBApril 12, 2008 08:29 EST

I am currently a student enrolled in McGill University and I know my fair share of students who have been "kicked out" of McGill. Because McGill is one of the hardest schools to get into in Canada, the work ethic of many of the entering students is already established enough to warrant a passing grade. As an Arts and Science student enrolled in the Biomedical and English offerings by the university, my experience has led me to believe that though it may be extremely difficult to get a failing grade in an Arts class, it is just as difficult to get an A. Your son, as an Arts student, was likely acknowledging the nonchalant nature exhibited by many Arts students at McGill. As papers and essays are the main component of the marking scheme in these classes, it is much easier for these kinds of students to "float" as you might say. However, I can personally assure you that if a student say, in the Science program decided to adopt a work ethic that revolved around "the bum's B.A," that person would eventually fail out of McGill. It is in my experience that many professors will refuse to give you an extension, and in many of the science classes (of the 200+ size) it is very difficult for these professors to even care about the personal needs of any student. As well, professors that have tenure are just as likely to be uncaring about the students' grades than caring. Just ask the Calc profs at McGill, who are able to get a C average in their classes, creating a formidable drop in any student's GPA. Thus, though you may be noticing the difficulty for any student to "flunk out", you should also recognize that McGill's 24 hour final exam library is taken advantage of by countless students. During exam season it is difficult to find a place that is not inundated with the bewildered student who is doing as much as possible in order to escape the fear that still exists of failing out of McGill.

R. KimApril 15, 2008 15:29 EST

I admire the sentiments that Jay Tietel is trying to convey. I would ask him, however, to be mindful that for some students, academic accommodations, re-testing, extensions, and the likes, are not always symptomatic of a complete disregard for course requirements, over partying, and procrastination. Indeed there are those who may not deserve a passing grade. But in my experience, I’ve only heard of them. The people I’ve met in university are serious individuals. I’ve met a few who have decided that university is not for them and have moved on. I think Tietel holds some presumption that there are only two types of students: a successful, driven, and/or serious student; and an idle, disinterested, apathetic, beer drinking male. What he fails to mention is that there are students who work, students who have family obligations, students with disabilities, students who just need extra time and help to meet their course requirements. While university can be an insular place, real life does not just stop. Like professors, students also have to work under and operate around various constraints. With regard to professors, I am sure that there are some departmental regulations that require them to scale grades or provide accommodations for students. But these considerations are not necessarily made for the reasons Tietel points out. For instance, students with disabilities are given various types of accommodations provided that they give a reasonable times notice. There are others who have other genuine personal issues that take priority over an essay. Professors are human beings. They are mindful enough to make an informed decision before granting extensions, providing accommodations, and the likes. As for the partying students I have met, most of them are mindful enough to gulp copious amounts of water, taken an Aspirin or two, and lug their books to the library the morning after.

Matias GarciaApril 16, 2008 08:28 EST

I like Alberto Manguel's comment from the Massey Lecture series, "The City of Words." He said something like, "Our universities have become training centers instead of centers of education."

That sums up my experience graduating with an engineering degree: I can do my job with some competence, though how much my university education contributes to my competence is debatable, but I was more educated by my high schooling than by my university curriculum. In addition, I didn't have to work all that hard. I'm relatively gifted in mathematical concepts, but I don't believe I should have graduated with the grades I received based on just-in-time homework and last-minute studying. Standards have fallen.

I'd rather have taken at least a year (preferably many more) of the classical curriculum: reading great books; studying great minds; writing papers, prose, and poetry; and learning to think. I was privileged to learn something of the latter from a philosopher friend of mine after university.

Unfortunately, I grew up under the impression that the finer arts don't pay well, and have only lately and latently learned the opposite (assuming the artist's determination) in conjunction with discovering my talent and happiness in pursuing them. This bored and tired engineer has finally found his soul in singing and writing, and can't afford the time to study them properly.

If I were a guidance counselor in high school, I'd be telling kids, "Don't you care about what's in the money right now, tell me what your gifts are, what sets your heart on fire, and we'll see how you can develop those to earn a living." It wouldn't matter as much what the standards are if the willing student met an earnest teacher, a meeting today's overcrowded universities have trouble facilitating.

I suppose that's what graduate studies are for, especially in light of the tarnishing of the once-reputed Baccalaureate. If a university is really a training center at the Baccalaureate level or even higher (especially within the technical professions), then I suppose it's in society's interest to give one to all those willing to pay: it keeps the economy humming with trained employees. That seems to be the "bottom line" in today's Canada, to the detriment of our cultural development.

KSApril 30, 2008 04:53 EST

Interestingly enough, I do know people who flunked out and were asked to leave Queen's University. One was put on academic probation for two years before being given the boot. The other simply stopped going to class, taking exams, and hardening in assignments, so she was asked to leave, although I doubt she even opened the letter that made it official - she didn't want to be there in the first place.

The reason I add to this discussion has to do with an statement made above by "Anonymous" about a friend who failed Calculus three times. This writer says "(although not so fortunate for our education system's terribly low standards) he was still able to go to Algonquin College in Ottawa to do a technical program." Therein lies the issue...because you cannot pass a university level calculus course does not equate to your failure in life, or your ability to succeed in a technical program, or the failure of the education system. Review that statement and ask yourself how pompous that sounds. One issue is that so many students see university as the only 'acceptable' option with the thought that a university degree equates to prestige and financial success, despite the fact that many more trades and technical people make far better livings (at least from an economic standard). The pressure we, as the university-educated class, put on students to seek out 'nothing less' than a BA is aiding the hysteria students and parents feel about succeeding at university.
The other comment of concern is the one about university degrees becoming worthless, a dime a dozen. Although I don't think it was intended to sound the way I interpreted it, the writer needs to clarify what he/she means by a degree becoming as common place as a high school diploma. Would you not want to live in a country, a world, where people are highly educated and can think critically about the societies in which they live, the leaders for whom they vote? People don't like the idea of all Canadians having open access to post-secondary education because it is an equalizer -and who wants that much competition? If we are going to discuss the value of the university degree, then discuss it based on academic rigor, not how many people will actually hold one in 2075.

AnonymousMay 02, 2008 21:48 EST

I don't know about the Universities, but profs are still failing students....

UnadmissionsMay 16, 2008 13:04 EST

Like the commenter from U of A, I have seen hundreds of students who have failed their university studies, some of whom have been Required To Withdraw (aka Refused Further Registration), usually after having been placed on probation repeatedly. Every one of them has a somewhat different reason for this, but they tend to fall into broad categories mentioned by other commenters, e.g. immaturity, poor program choice, medical/family problems, inadequate preparation, etc. that go well beyond the hard working/slacker dichotomy Jay Teitel allows for.

It's like Mr. Teitel woke up one day and thought he noticed nobody failing at universities, talked to a couple of people from his own socio-economic background about it, and then wrote his superficial article. He has not adequately dealt with the topic he purported to cover, namely what proportion of students fail individual courses, what proportion get placed on probation, and what proportion ultimately are Required to Withdraw at universities in Canada (and in the U.S.A. where grading practices are similar), are those proportions too small, what are the root causes of it, what would be preferable, and what steps should be taken to improve the situation?

This is one of many issues that Canadian and U.S. universities have wrestled with for decades, witness the many truly useful articles by insiders who know whereof they speak, in The Chronicle of Higher Education and other publications. The most recent useful article is in the June 2008 issue of Atlantic Monthly, "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower" by Professor X, at which paints a very different picture from the one Mr. Teitel paints. Another is in the May 14/08 edition of Inside Higher Ed, "Students Fail - and Professor Loses Job" by Scott Jaschik at

I suggest Mr. Teitel do his homework.

AnonymousAugust 04, 2008 12:41 EST

I know plenty of people that had failed classes at Brock University. However, only one name comes to mind when I think about actually getting kicked out.

Brock (as with many other Universities), puts failing students on academic probation. If you are still failing at this time, you are asked to leave for good. This is how the person I know got kicked some schools are still doing it.

AnonymousSeptember 04, 2008 19:45 EST

I was a student at a super flakey university, the dept. of education. My practicum experience was a nightmare. I learned that my FA negatively reported me on a daily basis to our coordinator. The coordinator, having made up his mind, neglected to contact me to hear my side. A decision was made based on whatever she felt like telling him. I was told I was doing okay to my face, having no clue with what was occuring behind my back. I withdrew - who in hell would trust these people with a reference? People do flunk out. Whether it be valid or not. I went to a real university for my undergrad degree, yet made the mistake in going to Flake U for my education degree. This unethical garbage would never had happened at a real university. I'm at the point where I am absolutely ashamed for even attending this place.

AnonymousApril 21, 2009 07:30 EST

I went to McGill University between 1972 and 1978, majoring in sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll, and graduated with a stellar 2.0 GPA! My record was peppered with As and Js (failure due to incompletion of work). I was on probation every other semester, but never failed out.

This is not a new problem. It, in my opinion, has to do with money and retention (the Quebec government ties its funding to student retention and graduation rates, NOT quality!) and a lack of student intrinsic motivation and a sense of the meaningless of education.

BTW, I now have a PhD from the same institution, because I discovered my passion. And graduated with great distinction.

AnonymousFebruary 07, 2010 10:32 EST

I love this article.

I'm a Canadian who finished a Ph.D in California in 1994 before moving back to an Academic job at Kwantlen College in Richmond BC where we're lived ever since.

I taught in the LACommunity College system during my 15 or so years in California and I can tell you people do fail there. They also don't have the sense of academic entitlement that I've noticed in Canadian schools. Moreover, LACC has a staff of professionally trained administrators who see their first job as protecting academic standards by supporting the standards that their carefully cultivated teaching staff are employed to maintain.

The underlying problem that I see in Canada is the complete lack of support by University or College administrations for instructors who maintain academic standards. Terrified of attrition rates in the climate of budgetary cutbacks that has reigned in Canada since the late 70s, administrators prefer simply to replace instructors who receive bad evaluations. This keeps their costs down, since at many institutions if an instructor lasts beyond two years the school is obliged to offer them some kind of regular job security with benefits. It is easier for an administrator to get rid of an instructor than it is to sneeze or turn off the tv. Both of those require physical actions. All an administrator has to do to get rid of an instructor is choose not to rehire him or her.

As a result, instructors vie for popularity among the students by grading easily, bringing treats to class, doing a whole host of unprofessional things. What was once a respected profession for thinking person has become a Mcjob with less prestige, financial reward and job security than than landscaping or waiting tables. The graduates that Canada gets from this system are the graduates it deserves because post-secondary education is an underfunded government monopoly which employs the cheapest teachers and administrators it can find to work in the schools. Administrator especially are to blame. These people lack the training and temperament to understand the importance of maintaining academic standards. So the problem is basically trying to have a universal post-secondary system ON THE CHEAP by employing contract instructors who disappear as soon as any criticism is leveled against them and ignorant administrators who don't understand the product that their institution is manufacturing and selling.

There's no remedy for it unless we want to spend much more money. But first we have to decide if it's worth it and why. The we have to find the political will to fire a generation of incompetent university administrators and hire new ones. I can't see this happening.

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