Why did the University of Edinburgh fail no students last year?

A student fear worse than a sober night out: reaching the end of fourth year only to fall at the final hurdle. Last year, University of Edinburgh was one of eleven universities not to fail any final year students – but in the broader context of higher education today, what does this mean? 

The University of Edinburgh is a prestigious institution: 27th in the world according to The World University Rankings 2018. With an admission rate of only 10 per cent, getting into the university is a tremendous challenge. Therefore from the outset, failure is not a common occurrence for the lucky few accepted into first year, a place for those whose abilities have been proven. The university does not accept students they expect to fail.

Considering the demanding nature of degree courses at University of Edinburgh, it is important to think about the implications behind these statistics. Though every student who completed their final year at Edinburgh in 2018 achieved a degree, this does not account for students who fail along the way. Final year exams are not the only hurdle a student must overcome on the path to a degree. According to information obtained by the University of Edinburgh, drop out rates for some courses, such as those under the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, can be as high as 4.3 per cent per year. Those who survive the gruelling load of coursework may find themselves defeated by end of year exams, leaving them unable to progress to honours. Students unlikely to attain a degree at the end of their time at university have largely been weeded out by their final year. The extremely high pass rate in their final year may therefore be due not to low examination standards but to a high calibre of students. 

Being one of only eleven universities to not fail any students has understandably been heralded as an achievement by the university. However, in contrast to this exceptional pass rate, the University of Edinburgh has a relatively low student satisfaction rate compared to other UK universities, 77 per cent in 2018 according to The World University Rankings. 

Is it possible that the University of Edinburgh is sacrificing teaching standards in favour of attracting more students and therefore more funding? In order to be successful, a university must generate enough revenue to cover the costs of wages and equipment. According to a 2016 report on university funding, UK universities barely break even in covering the costs of teaching. A more-or-less guaranteed degree attracts more students and therefore more money for the university, possibly at the expense of quality of teaching and examinations. 

Tuition fees are an influence not only on university standards, but students’ attitudes. The greatest contention lies in the culture of students feeling entitled to their degrees, which is at the centre of the tensions between neoliberalism and education. Higher education today is an economic enterprise; tuition fees and student debt are a customary part of today’s student experience. The relationship between student and educator is now more akin to consumer and seller. ‘What am I paying for?’ quickly becomes the response to bad grades. Student’s response to the UCU strikes last spring show the same patterns, with students feeling entitled to their money back after missed lectures. This potentially caused the university to be unable to fail anyone, the overwhelming feeling being that students were hard done by the strikes and therefore entitled to succeed in their degree having spent thousands obtaining it.

Ultimately, it is impossible to prove if last year’s trend of immaculate student pass rates is due to determined, hard-working students or issues that have arisen with tuition fees, But the state of affairs as they stand, are that today’s University of Edinburgh students may be more likely to gain their degree than find a seat in the library. Not failing any students may be a badge that we should wear with pride, but it may also be time for more honesty in our higher education system. 

Image: This Is Edinburgh via Wikimedia Commons

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The Student Newspaper 2016