So we had a few failures. Was that the end of university?

Thor May
Brisbane 2014


The proper role of universities is endlessly debated. There are the competing demands of teaching and research, sources of funding, the shifting status of disciplines within the academy, and so on. Nothing is more contentious than who is suitable to be a university student. Should it be a matter of privilege, a question of sheer academic brilliance, an issue of national employment requirements, an attempt to offer the maximum opportunity to the maximum number of citizens … ? As with so many human questions, some fortunate individuals will benefit under almost any access regime. Difficult decisions arise at the margins, and the policy choices which are made there can have long term consequences.

The source of this short document is intensely personal. It is the story of early university misadventure by one individual, myself. At first glance it might seem of little interest to anyone but the protagonist. I am publishing it because in fact pieces of this story fit the lives of so many students who simply disappear from the statistics and into oblivion. Educational administrators may make assumptions about them, perhaps based on personal prejudice and hearsay, while political decisions about which kinds of students to fund tend to be founded in ideology rather than the real life stories of actual individuals and their development.

Failure has diverse ancestors and sometimes unpredictable descendants. However, each man or woman rarely sees themself as an evolving vector, an actor who might be “someone else with a different brain” ten years down the track. People act in the moment according to their horizon of expectations now. This horizon is a very personal condition, often constrained by all kinds of background experience and self-beliefs which may be hidden even to the owner. Shifting that horizon may be partly a matter of maturation, partly life experience, and with luck the intervention of gifted teachers or mentors. It surely was a painful process for younger versions of myself.

An experienced teacher learns what few administrators ever see: a proportion of students who can seem "stupid & lazy" on casual acquaintance will change over time in surprising ways for unexpected reasons. Tertiary education institutions pretend to be about “subjects of research and learning”, but willy-nilly they are also incubators for young adult personalities. Young adults can be exasperating, some seem hopeless when known only briefly, and many have a poor sense of consequences.  

Navigating between equity and proper evaluation with these flighty youngsters is a nightmare for institutional decision makers. With corrupted standards (and many, many universities worldwide are so corrupted) a university loses its full value. With blind bureaucratic exclusion for some passing student shortcoming, young lives can be blighted and the community loses long term.  My own preferred solution would be for university access to be open and free to all, but in a step by step process. That is, each unit of a course would be free on first attempt, but require payment for any repetition due to failure, and before proceeding to the next step. This introduces a self-correcting incentive for both the students and the institution.

So much for general principles. The heart of this piece is an appeal which I wrote in 1972 against my exclusion from a university in 1972 on the grounds of being academically unsuitable to continue study.




Thor May, 1972  –  Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

Appeal against academic exclusion


Background:  Although an Australian, in 1966 I took the cheapest boat fare out of Australia, to New Zealand, and after working for a while as a laundryman was admitted as an undergraduate to Victoria University of Wellington on a “90% bursary”, a concession that gave me access for $30 a year to the university education I could not afford in Australia.  This was a leap into the dark for me. I had done well in high school (dux on one occasion) but my working class birth family had no understanding of or interest in tertiary education, and no other connections, mentors or friends were around to offer advice. For years after leaving high school I had drifted through a series of mind-destroying unskilled jobs, wondering if this was all life had to offer.

University culture was an unknown quantity for me, my future was unclear, and from 1966 to 1969 at VUW I “tasted” many courses, looking for a direction, and earning bare C or B passes. I survived financially by doing commercial cleaning for 75 cents an hour. At the end of 1969, dispirited, I did not even wait to do the exams, and simply left the country. Back in Australia I found various kinds of unskilled work again, and saved a bit of money. Then in 1971 I made a life changing backpacking trip, sleeping rough on the decks of cargo boats through S.E. Asia, and from India travelled on local transport through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, and eventually through to England where I arrived with five pounds left in my pocket. Some time later, back in Australia, I made a decision to complete my undergraduate degree at VUW.  However, new regulations excluded me as an academically unsuitable student.  I appealed this exclusion, was re-admitted, and from 1973-74 completed the degree with straight ‘A’ passes. This was followed by a graduate diploma of teaching from Auckland. I had found a vocation, which made all the difference to academic success.

The letter which follows is the successful appeal which I made to the university for readmission. I was 27 years old. The document is republished here to offer some insight into the minds of students like myself who, in the opinions of administrators, politicians and the public, seem to have wasted their opportunities and public money. The bland statistics of academic records often conceal a far more complex human story, and those statistics rarely trace the lifelong outcomes of “incompleted” study experiences.  In my own case, the 1967-1969 study period, although apparently unsuccessful in the public record, had a major influence in shaping and assisting my adult view of the world, and that influence is with me to this day.


[this preface written November 2014]



15 July 1972

Academic Exclusion Review Committee
Victoria University of Wellington, NZ

Dear sirs,

Thank you for your letter of 11 July 1972 in which you indicate that I am now subject to exclusion regulations.

I note that the faculty dean and the Exclusion Review Committee intend to be consistent in their application of criteria to appeals. With no knowledge of precedent, I have tried to make a commonsense estimate of where those criteria should lie.

I have assumed that the dean must satisfy himself of a) the student’s potential, and b) his motivation. He will balance this against the more objective evidence of previous success or failure.

Mr S. Johnston, who I understand is acting dean of the English Department, was my tutor in 1967. Since distance precludes a personal interview at the moment, I have enclosed a photograph to aid his memory.

My basic abilities, though not outstanding, are above average. I usually adopted a leading and sometimes critically destructive role in tutorials (the tendency has mellowed). Tutors, including Mr Johnston, Professor Joan Metge, and Mr C. Kernot may recall this. For what it is worth, in 1966 at a University of Sydney venue my measured IQ was 137.  

My academic record is more descriptive of motives than of ability. Three trends seem clear:

1.   An eclectic selection of units. Although all arts oriented, the study choices were basically experimental and unrelated  - “let’s see what this is all about … “. Hence the absence of familiar (but no less interesting) school subjects such as history, geography or economics. English is a single exception.

2.   A tendency to drop subjects at the last moment: German Reading Knowledge in 1967, English II in 1968, Anthropology II and Psychology II in 1969. This is behaviour driven less from faintness of heart than a refusal to put on the record bare pass levels so far short of supposed ability. Well, that kind of pride invites its own hubris.

3.   Mediocre to basic pass levels.

There is overall evidence of superficial curiosity and a fundamental lack of purpose. The attempt to escape from a narrow working class background led to diffuse enquiries in many directions. Without acquiring the intensive knowledge that gives a specialist infinite fascination in his own subject, the new and arbitrary areas of interest quickly lost any pressing relevance to my own situation. This in turn encouraged scrappy preparation, poor memory work, and dilettante excursions.

My present objective is quite specific: to teach English as a foreign language.

Teaching, as I came to understand rather late, has nothing to do with talking at a captive audience. It has more to do with the insidious cunning, the temptation and subtle deception that it takes to persuade someone that they desperately need a piece of information or a technique. It also implies skill in rendering information accessible from many perspectives without, however, becoming diffuse. In general I suffer less remorse from true teaching than from a cynical job like selling encyclopaedias for a quick profit.

Language as the medium, as well as the message, has engaged an escalating quota of my attention for several years now. It began with the attempt to master German at VUW, later at night school in London, now privately, and eventually turned back upon the structure of English itself when I encountered  Bright & McGregor’s Teaching English as a Foreign Language.

The linguistic preoccupation was heightened by a trip I made overland last year through Timor, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, and thence to Europe. The prestige of a Timorese villager with his scattered collection of English phrases, the offhand contempt of Singaporeans for the language, the exquisite diction of poverty-stricken Anglo-Indians in Calcutta, the hilarious haughty Oxford tones of a Pakistani eulogising English cricket, his bare feet tucked neatly under his bottom on the boards of a 3rd class railway carriage … all helped to show me the intimate and often poignant part that language can play in a lifestyle. One’s own stumbling excursions into any language always provide the first real clues to local attitudes and assumptions. Your innocent sentence may provoke approval, or gales of laughter, but someone is always ready to help. You are no longer a tourist, but a pupil, and an incipient teacher.

Though we sometimes feel ourselves drowning in oceans of turgid prose, at least the demand for English as a living language is worldwide. Those teaching skills which can make English learning vital are scarce enough at home or abroad to give me a clear sense of purpose.

Exclusion from VUW at this stage would be a grave obstacle to my engagement as a teacher. It would certainly mean starting from scratch somewhere else, which seems unnecessary and wasteful. I hope that the dean, or the Exclusion Review Committee, can feel justified in re-admitting me to the university.

Yours sincerely,

Thor May



Professional bio: Thor May has a core professional interest in cognitive linguistics, at which he has rarely succeeded in making a living. He has also, perhaps fatally in a career sense, cultivated an interest in how things work – people, brains, systems, countries, machines, whatever… In the world of daily employment he has mostly taught English as a foreign language, a stimulating activity though rarely regarded as a profession by the world at large. His PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of finding his way out of working class origins, through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia in 1971-72).



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So we had a few failures. Was that the end of university? © Thor May 2014