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I pushed the University of Eastern Australia over the edge when I failed Aziz Mohammed. Not that I had any option but to fail him. He is the type of student that gives short planks a bad name. The only thing that surprised me was that he had got to second year of a university course, even at a modern self-funded, overpopulated, privatised degree factory such as ours. For this, I could think of only two explanations: either most of my colleagues are as thick as Aziz (which wouldn't surprise me), or Aziz has an identical twin brother Abdul who he trots out at exam times.
Aziz came to every lecture and every tutorial, a thickset hulk in a natty, shiny suit, overdressed and out of place. He would sit about half way back and take notes with a tiny silver pen clasped in enormous hairy paws. He never spoke, unless he had to. When asked a question, his jaws would chomp for a moment, then he would repeat, in garbled, broken English, whatever the last person had said.
You can't say that Aziz was incapable of learning, at one level at least. His first assignment consisted of twenty three pages copied word for word from the text book. That went back, crossed through in red. His second was copied word for word from another student. That went back too, with appropriate comments. Not that it would have done him much good anyway. He'd copied from the second worst student in the group.
I hoped that by then he'd see the writing on the wall, but no way. Aziz' ancestors' blood flowed in his veins, and that blood said "No retreat".
By the third assignment, he'd got cunning: he copied from a book that he thought I hadn't seen, because it wasn't on my reading list. Unfortunately I had seen it. I had also written such a scathing review of it that I checked the participants list at any conference I planned to attend, to make sure that the author wasn't there.
From all that, you can imagine Aziz' final exam. He'd tried to copy from the candidate at the next table, and had done not a bad job, considering. Every sixth word was missing (it must have been hidden by the fold in the book) and occasionally answers trailed off in mid-sentence where the copyee had turned over a page, but then Aziz' style was a bit like that anyway. It was just a pity that my exam took up only one row in the exam room, and that the next row was doing English Literature.
Aziz' father came to see me after the results came out. After Aziz, he was a surprise: a tall, distinguished man with a long, sad face, a hook nose and a mane of grey hair. He spoke softly, and in impeccable English, like a diplomat. I later discovered that he ran a halal butcher's shop in Preston, and had for the last thirty years.
"My son," he said. "What did he do wrong?"
"He does not understand enough about the subject," I said.
"Why is that? He works very hard. He goes to school every day. He works at home every night. His mother is worried about his eyes, he stays up so late."
"Hard work is not everything," I tried to explain. "People must learn to understand the subject that they are studying."
Mr Mohammed's eyebrows bunched together. "Do you not teach your students to understand?" he asked.
"We try, Mr Mohammed."
"Then what is it about Aziz that you do not succeed?"
This was what I was trying to avoid. How do you explain to a parent that their child is thick?
"His English, for one thing," I said.
The lines of the frown grew deeper. "Aziz was born here. How can he not speak English?"
"What language do you speak at home?"
"Our own language, of course. What else would we speak? But Aziz speaks English at school. I have seen his books. I know."
"It is not enough, Mr Mohammed. He must speak it at home, and with friends. He must read newspapers in English, watch television in English ..."
Mr Mohammed made a quick gesture with his hand, as if casting off an evil spirit. "Television," he said, "is not allowed. The women ..."
He paused. "You said, 'for one thing'. What are the others?"
It looked like I was going to have to say it. "Mr Mohammed. I really do not think that Aziz has the ability to do this course."
I had expected steam, and I got it. But it hissed very quietly. "Then why did you let him?" he asked. His teeth were crooked and not quite white.
"We try to give people a chance," I said.
"Then why are you not giving him a chance?"
I had already told him, so I waited for him to continue.
"Aziz is my eldest son. We have a career planned for him. Why do you wish to stop him?"
"I don't wish to stop him."
"Then why did you fail him?"
"Because I do not believe that he is capable of understanding my subject."
"That is your opinion. What about your colleagues? Last year, he passed."
"My colleagues will back me up." I didn't add "Right or wrong".
Mr Mohammed's eyes narrowed, and his canine teeth appeared at the corners of his mouth.
"This, I think, is a conspiracy," he said, very quietly, the hiss nearly audible. "You take my son. You tell us that he can do your course. You take our money from us. Ten thousand dollars last year. Thirteen thousand dollars this year. You tell us, 'Give us your money, we will teach Aziz. We will give him a degree, give him a good career.' I give you the money. What do you give me? Do you give me a degree for Aziz? No. You tell me, 'Sorry, Aziz is no good.'"
He reached out his hand, palm upwards. "Okay, Aziz is no good. So give me my money back."
I shook my head. "It doesn't work like that, Mr Mohammed," I said.
When I told the Registrar, Brigadier O'Malley, about Mr Mohammed, he laughed. "Serves him right," he said. "If he'd lived here as long as I have, he'd know better than to believe anything that he's told by an educational institution."
The case of Mohammed vs The University of Eastern Australia was a landmark in educational history: the first educational malpractice case in Australia.
The University's case was superb. It took thirty nine silks a hundred and fifty two days to define Academic Freedom, and set the building programme back by ten years. Mr Mohammed's man from legal aid struggled on doggedly from day to day as the money to keep the case going trickled in from increasingly distant tentacles of the extended family. Mr Justice Woolworth sat in his eyrie, like a drab Father Christmas, barely visible in the distance, making brief notes.
His judgement, when it came, was a bombshell.
"In my day," he said, "a University Education was to be prized. It was a rigorous exercise of intellect, in established disciplines, in which high standards were not merely expected but achieved.
"Now, it has become a consumer product. Universities are in the market place, selling degrees in Environmental Science and Social Interaction in flavours of Chocolate, Strawberry and Passion Fruit. Salesmen in suits hawk glossy brochures from door to door, as if they were selling encyclopaedias or refrigerators.
"In our legal system, vendors of such goods and services have certain responsibilities. If take my car to a garage, and the garage tells me that it will cost me fifty dollars to have it fixed, then I expect that for my fifty dollars it will be fixed. If a University quotes me fifty thousand dollars to teach my daughter a three year Bachelor of Needlework, then I expect that she will be taught that Bachelor of Needlework within the stated time and for the stated amount.
"Within such an environment, concepts of 'failure' are nonsense. If the garage mechanic is incapable of repairing my car after he has undertaken to do so, he cannot then blame the car. If the University does not believe that it can educate a student, then it should not accept them in the first place.
"In the case of Aziz Mohammed, the University of Eastern Australia took on the task of educating him, and has demanded and received progress payments, in advance, for the performance of that task. Now it must complete it ..."
At Aziz' graduation, the hall was packed. At least half of them were family, squeezing out the meagre one or two allotted to the other graduands. The Chancellor's speech was a paean to free market education.
At the reception afterwards, I slipped behind the screen with the favoured few to sample the Vice-Chancellorial whisky supply.
The Registrar touched me on the arm.
"Read this," he said, handing me a telex.
It was from the World Association of Universities. It read: "Regret inform you that Academic Credit Rating University of Eastern Australia downgraded forthwith from AAA to D--. Cheers, Bruce."
"D double minus. That's bad," I said.
The Registrar drooped into his whisky. "Disastrous. Mail order Doctorates of Divinity don't give you worse than C," he said.
"Only if they don't pretend to be real ones."
"It's the end of this university as we know it," the Registrar said.
I swiped another whisky from a passing tray, and admired my reflection in it for a moment. "That's not a bad thing," I said.
"What do you mean?"
"Hasn't it occurred to you that we're in an ever reducing market?"
"What do you mean?"
"Ask any academic. Students get thicker every year - and worse trained. Standards are dropping. We know that. Just listen to the cries."
"Let's stop pretending. We already teach people how to spout buzzwords without knowing what they mean, but we look down on it, pretend it isn't right. Face it. How do you get promoted, or get a new job? Not for doing a good job. No interview panel ever knows that. For making an impression, appearing confident and 'with it', using the 'in' terms."
"How does that help us?"
"We re-orient our courses. Concentrate on the skills that the world really wants: ego-boosting, back stabbing and office politics. Stop than kidding our students that it's intellect and merit that gets you on." I held my glass up to the light, as a beacon. "There's a market out there, Brigadier."
He showed a set of army-issue khaki teeth. O'Malley catches on fast. "... And a prospective ocean of grateful graduates, in positions of power and influence."
We clinked glasses.
"To D treble minus, and worse," we said.
Copyright © D.W. Walker, 1991
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