Academic success in higher education is generally evaluated by means of concrete and measurable criteria that function as an institutional discourse of success. However, a parallel discourse of success that is far less evident is the languaging and identification of success or failure that students hold and circulate. This paper investigates what counts as success from students’ perspectives using a critical lens informed by Stuart Hall’s discursive analysis and James Gee’s inclusive articulation of discourse. We argue that students tend to describe and evaluate their success in a consistent way, making it more than a highly individualised set of statements. Being well versed in terms of “what counts” for the institution, we consider “what counts” for the students: what do they endorse, contest or negotiate as markers of success?
We subsequently tease out the similarities and distinctions in these two discourses that function in parallel and read the recurring themes and nuances of (dis)orientation that come through in the interviews as markers for an alternative discourse of success or failure that stands alongside of (and occasionally in opposition to) the institutional discourse.