Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 31 March 2017
A few years ago, British schools got worried about their bad students. Not so much about the fact they were not learning enough. Rather how their failure would make them feel.
That is why they stopped calling failure what it is and instead started talking about “deferred success”.
Well, as it turns out, some New Zealand universities are going a step further. They are now actively helping their worst students to pass exams regardless.
As the Herald revealed this week, a majority of university lecturers surveyed by their union said that they would “change assessments, ignore cheating and pass incompetent students”.
This, of course, had little to do with helping the students feel better about themselves, let alone actually making them learn more. It was all about ensuring that universities meet their pass rate targets and continue to receive public funding.
Of course, there was outrage that such practices might ever happen, and some vice chancellors were quick to dismiss the survey.
But the findings do not only sound plausible to any employer who has ever interviewed recent university graduates. The practice could also set a model for dealing with other public policy challenges.
In a similar fashion, waiting lists for hospitals could be gently massaged. There must be a way in which we could delay the start of waiting times in A&E departments. How about requiring admissions to fill in some lengthy forms first and only start the clock when they are done with it?
Traffic congestion data can be quickly massaged. We will just remove all the times vehicles spent in traffic jams or at red lights from the calculation of average speeds and voilà, traffic will appear to be moving much faster.
When measuring any kind of economic or social indicators, we would only accept favourable data while declaring all others measurement errors. I always suspected that this is how natural scientists conduct their experiments too.
In this way, we will soon find ourselves in a country in which all our students are mini-Einsteins, no traffic jams exist, economic growth is high, inflation low, and all our public services are work super-efficient.
It will not have much to do with reality, of course. But it will look and feel so much better.
No-one would have to worry about deferred success anymore. But that would then be the least of our worries.