Brightest fail test of general knowledge

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TODAY'S students may know the name of Winnie the Pooh's favourite food but they cannot list all the British monarchs of this century.

A study of 420 students at a leading university shows that many are poor at basic arithmetic, grammar and general knowledge.

While 93 per cent knew Winnie the Pooh's favourite food, only a third could name all the British monarchs this century. Only 15 per cent knew how many countries were founder members of the European Economic Community and only 63 per cent knew the name of the religion whose followers worship Allah. A third did not know the county in which Cheltenham is.

Overall, the score on general knowledge or "cultural literacy" was 40 per cent if media-orientated questions were excluded.

The survey, outlined in Education+ in The Eye section of The Independent today and carried out by Rob Lowe, a lecturer at University College, Stockton, part of Durham University, found that standards of grammar and arithmetic were poor. Mr Lowe does not wish to name the university but says it is a "historic" institution.

Only half knew that the sentence "Whose left that book behind?" was incorrect and only just over half were able to punctuate correctly the sentence: "questionnaires can be fun time is essential for satisfactory completion".

In arithmetic, two-thirds failed to multiply correctly a quarter by a quarter and more than half gave the wrong answer to the sum 24 - 2 x 6.

Natural scientists did worse than their peers in humanities at literacy but were not always better at numeracy.

Mr Lowe found that attendance rates at classes at universities in the North-East were "alarmingly low", ranging from 60 per cent for social science and humanities classes to 80 per cent for natural sciences.

He questions whether standards are high enough. "Ninety per cent of students who complete their courses probably get a degree of some sort," he said. "If many are able to do so on a foundation of 60 per cent attendance, and, anecdotally, with minimal reading, are the demands that lecturers impose stringent enough? Alternatively, why is 40 per cent of teaching input redundant to successful achievement of a degree?"

Mr Lowe argues that there should be a new hierarchy of universities to take account of the huge variety of students brought into the system through a decade of expansion.

"Teaching strategies tailored to the assumption that all can be brought to a similar outcome, albeit by different routes, are academically unsound and morally wrong."

Mr Lowe lays much of the blame on the universities themselves for failing in to identify the changing reasons students have for taking up higher education.

"The universities have worked to respond to the increase in student numbers, with special induction weeks for the mature learner, support classes for overseas entrants whose first language is not English, better funding for pastoral care, more teaching and more in-course assessment," he said.

"What these initiatives overlook is the altered ethos of a student body whose members are often ill-informed, and whose reasons for going to university are, from a traditional perspective, questionable."

He said many students focused only on achieving exam results. He said a recent survey had shown this had something to do with students' poor financial resources: Barclay's Bank in Sunderland reports that a third of its student customers have part-time jobs.