Unheard on campus: Stories from students who have failed subjects

Speaking to students who've failed subjects in light of the proposed punitive changes to HECS.

Christian Holman.

In August university students were hit with the announcement that they could lose access to the HECS scheme if they fail more than half their subjects in a year. 

Education Minister Dan Tehan argued that the proposal was designed to prevent students repeatedly failing courses and accumulating debt to taxpayers in the process. But this obscures the reasons why students fail. 

Most students aren’t failing a bunch of courses because they’re ‘serial failers’. It’s often because of disadvantage or devastating situations that are beyond their control. And when faced with these problems, they aren’t offered the support they need from their universities or the Government.

We’ve chronicled real stories from students who have failed subjects due to hardship, and who would be impacted by Tehan’s proposal.

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Hannah – “I couldn’t go in to uni because I was worried about seeing him.”

“One afternoon in semester 2 of first year, I left class with a friend and another guy in our tutorial. We were waiting for a light, and the guy spent the whole time staring directly at my boobs. Direct eye contact, not even trying to be subtle about it.

It feels stupid that it affected me the way that it did. It usually wouldn’t even register, but I slipped back into old coping mechanisms, due to a similar but more serious incident.

I spent the next couple of weeks super panicked. I’d leave during breaks and try to get away from campus for a second. One day, I was sitting up the back, and caught him turning around and staring at me again. I left and puked in a bathroom.

I talked to one of my tutors. “Weird” was the word I think he used, but he told me it wasn’t black-and-white sexual harassment in terms of university policy. He told me to just try and get through the class. He was trying his best, but I think staff need to be supported to know how to respond.

It put me in a headspace where it was incredibly difficult to concentrate. I could show up, I could practice, but I couldn’t do any work. Everything required so much more thought and energy than normal.

Sometimes I couldn’t go in to uni because I was worried about seeing him. I almost failed an assessment because when I woke up that morning, I thought I wouldn’t cope if I had to present in front of him.

I felt like it was such a small thing to lose a lot of progress over; that it was my fault I let myself get so affected. I didn’t want to deal with the fact that I hadn’t dealt with it in the first place. It had taken a lot to stop thinking like that.

I ended up absent failing a history subject and another subject. I considered appealing them, but felt too ashamed to do anything. 

I had a good experience with CAPS, luckily. My counsellor had done trauma work before, which was a miracle; otherwise, it would’ve been a lot harder to admit, “I can’t say exactly what I’m thinking, but I need you to fix me.”

I was pissed when I first heard about the government’s proposal. I think the Libs either don’t have the lived experience to understand what it would do, or the empathy to understand what it could do. 

It’s cruel. You’re going to cut out people who have the most trouble adjusting to university life, who have an incredible amount to offer, but haven’t had the opportunity to do so. That’s the expectation they’re trying to set up — that if you can’t survive first year perfectly intact, then you shouldn’t be at uni at all.

If they had booted me out, I don’t know what I would’ve done. I really don’t know. There was no way I could’ve afforded it.

I’m doing much better now. It’s been up and down, because, shockingly, six sessions of therapy did not fix me. Therapy is expensive, and work right now doesn’t lend itself to consistency.

But there are so many things that help. Sometimes, when things are a little crazy, the first step is trying to clean and control parts of your space. Playing music, with people who I felt comfortable with, made me feel very safe. And, particularly when it first happened, friends were incredibly important. Oftentimes you’re just lying to yourself when you don’t talk to anyone, when it endlessly makes you feel better when you do.

They didn’t get to cut me out of the system. I’m still here.”

Sam – “No one bothered to check in with me”

I was assaulted in the middle of a trimester last year. I had a quiz due that was worth 35%, but I completely missed it because I was in bed, locking myself away from everyone.

I emailed my tutor about what happened. He seemed to be really supportive in class, so I thought he would understand; but all he said was that he was sorry it happened, and that I needed a medical certificate or police report for the quiz back up. I could tell that the email was a generic copy paste.

I ended up failing that unit, and there was absolutely no option to appeal it. Missing this quiz made me even more miserable. 

The tutor never followed up, which I thought was odd. If someone came up to me saying they had been assaulted, I would be doing everything I could to follow up with them and make sure they were okay. I ended up calling Deakin’s wellbeing services a few days after, but they were fully booked out for two months.

Before this, my WAM was at around 94. I had set myself up well for a very competitive grad year given my results and my appraisals on my clinical placements. Now that’s all gone down the drain, and my WAM is somewhere in the 60s, I think. I have a very strong feeling that no one will take me and that I won’t be able to get into the program that I wanted. 

After that, the university told me they wouldn’t be renewing my scholarship since I didn’t meet the conditions. It wasn’t a lot of money, but I needed that for textbooks. I was lucky that my family provided some money. 

We don’t get to choose where my placements are. They put me in a forensic nursing hospital. I’m expecting to see a lot of assault victims and I am terrified of how I’m going to react to that environment.

On top of everything, I recently split up with my boyfriend because of issues stemming from my situation. I just feel like my whole life is now not going to plan, and the uni is not helping; in fact, it’s making me incredibly anxious about everything.

No one really is going to care enough to listen. They’re going to tell me that that’s where I’m going and to suck it up. I’ve fallen through the cracks, and it’s not fair. I didn’t choose what happened to me. 

Earlier in the year, I came back from a cruise, so I had to get tested for coronavirus. I missed a mandatory practical, to which I emailed them, and said, “I have to isolate until the results,” which back in March took over a week. They were incredibly understanding, and even had someone from their wellbeing office follow up with me 3 days afterwards, which just absolutely astounded me. 

I got assaulted, and I told someone, and missed class, and failed a unit, and no one bothered to check in with me. But I got tested for coronavirus, and then they bothered to check up on me? It doesn’t really make sense. It absolutely blows my mind that they wouldn’t do that for a student who’s been through a very traumatic experience, and who has good reason to miss class.

I don’t know if my tutor didn’t believe me, so didn’t escalate it; or whether he did escalate, but they thought I was lying. I felt really unsupported; like they weren’t taking me seriously. I don’t know if they thought I was being lazy, or that I wouldn’t bother going to the police or a doctor – which I did, but I couldn’t get what they wanted. The wellbeing system that they have is incredibly backwards.

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Alex – “All they did was send emails that made me too scared to ask for support.” 

When I started uni last year, my inability to focus really started to cause problems. The change in learning style was huge. I found it really distressing that I couldn’t keep up with my classmates, even though I felt like I was able to understand the work just as well as them. 

I started failing subjects pretty quickly. I failed all but one of my subjects in first year, and got an email a few weeks after semester finished saying that if I didn’t get my act together I’d be kicked out. 

Neither of my parents have university degrees, so they weren’t really across how to assist me with adjusting from high school to uni successfully and easily. I struggled with study a lot in high school, but felt like I got away with it because of  natural ability. 

I hadn’t received any support from the uni or my tutors. All that I’d gotten from the uni was fear mongering, to be honest. The only thing they did for me was send me emails that made me too scared to ask for support. 

I think that if the email I received at the end of semester 1 in first year had asked whether I was doing alright and offered support, then I wouldn’t have kept failing.

I think I took such a hit to my ego that I had a lot of anxiety around even starting assignments. I was so ashamed by my lack of ability to focus, because that’s how the uni made me feel. So I stopped going to classes and stopped attending work, and then pretty quickly it became more like getting zeros.

I think it’s really telling that I got an HD in the only subject I passed, because I had a tutor who followed up with me and a course coordinator who really cared about making it an open space with information about special consideration and support for people’s personal lives.  I honestly think that if the entire university structure was like that, then I and so many others wouldn’t have failed.

I met up with an academic advisor who was really supportive and set me up with a plan, but there’s only so much those meetings can do. In reality, the uni needs to assist you to make appointments with people like counsellors, because it wasn’t until this month that I finally cracked into getting the support that I need. 

It was an 8 month process of battling through various administrative issues of trying to get support for myself, while also trying to not get kicked out of uni. It has been an incredibly isolating and lonely experience. 

I think that when a student fails the uni has to ask why, rather than just telling them to stop failing. There is always a reason beyond laziness.

I’m feeling really good now. I finally have the support that I need – my GP is totally across all my issues, I have a really good therapist and a really good psychiatrist. 

But I had to figure all of that out for myself. I wish someone had explained to me how to get there.

Christian – “The hardest part was telling my mum.”

I was new to Sydney. It was meant to be a fresh start. I didn’t know anyone in my classes. One day, I woke up early Saturday morning in Camperdown Park not remembering much of the night beforehand. I don’t know, maybe I hadn’t eaten that much at dinner.

I honestly didn’t think anything of it – that was until I got home. My heart froze. I looked down and saw so much blood in that toilet.

I was scared. I was confused. I didn’t know what this would mean for my relationship with my boyfriend, with my body, with myself.

I remember sitting in a windowless room at the Sexual Health Clinic and asking the psychologist to steer clear of any definitive words in documentation excusing me from the tutorial I was missing. And what are you even meant to say to your tutor about something you don’t remember? “Hey, I think I was raped but I’m really not quite sure.”

I waited so anxiously for my blood results. What if I had gotten something? By the time they eventually arrived I’d fallen far behind on my readings. Honestly, I was barely making it to class let alone out of bed.

The hardest part was telling my mum. How do you tell the one who sees you as the best little boy in the world that you’re failing out of law school, let alone what had happened?

I never ended up sitting my final exams.

When I heard what they were thinking of introducing for students, it brought me right back to that place of shame. I had been so scared of saying it out loud, not because I was afraid of what would come out but of what I would hear back.

Everything flies around your head — the nurse urging me to wear a condom next time I ‘did that again’, my partner asking if I’d cheated on him, the email placing me on academic probation.

I lacked so much belief in myself to keep going. In some ways I still do. It took me so long to accept that failing isn’t an indicator of character, but of crisis. 

I honestly don’t know what I would have done with one more voice telling me that that moment defined me, that maybe I didn’t deserve the things I had once before. In times where your world is so shaken, students need support not sanction.

*Names have been anonymised.

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