Ivan Illich remarks that "Education creates failure". When we consider the double-bind that students are in with regard to education, failure is rarely spoken about. Certainly not in the student prospectus. Not in the interview with tutors before admission. And yet failure is the principal risk that can render huge personal expense worse than useless ("it would have been better if I'd never gone to university").
Universities won't talk about failure because it wants the students to come (in a marketised education system - interestingly it didn't used to be like this). Students won't talk about failure because they want to appear worthy of admission and want acceptance and fear rejection. So the system gears itself up around the prohibition of talk of failure.
But for widening participation students, failure and rejection is very common: but only after they've committed themselves. The institution might take a 'hit' from this in the form of its 'retention' statistics (another construct!), but not as much as the 'hit' which the learners are subjected to. And it's not even as if 'failure' is a clean break. If a student wants to leave after having failed but wants to be accredited with a part-award for what they have passed, they often have to retake (and re-fail) the requisite number of times (and pay for it). Such regulations can only be seen as ways of protecting the revenue of the University; it is clearly not in the student's interests.
In this way, failure is tied into the double-bind the students are in. A rational discussion about the risks of failure is not possible under these conditions.
What can be done about it?
I think in making it transparent about 'what you have to do to get a degree', including up-front assignments which can be inspected before entry, a rational judgement about the risks of failure can be made. This would make the discussion about the risks of failure possible, because it would be clear what the university expects for success. It would enable students to judge when they feel they are ready to be submitted to assessment. Most interestingly, much of the counselling discussion which takes place whilst the student is on the course, could occur before the student is submitted for assessment.