Academe under stress

University teachers are gloomy about the current state of further education, a survey reveals.
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A survey of academics carried out for The Independent by Continental Research paints a gloomy picture of a system under stress. The survey reveals a declining standard of new undergraduates, and quality of education threatened by spending cuts.

While they were eloquent about the problems they faced, the majority of the 302 lecturers and professors questioned (60 per cent) were much less coherent about the solutions and retained a touching faith in the willingness of the British taxpayer to fork out for higher education. Just under one-third (29 per cent) supported the Australian model of charging for tuition through loans repaid through national insurance and a tiny 3 per cent were in favour of top-up fees levied by individual universities.

Our sample - spread across six faculties at 50 universities in the United Kingdom - were surveyed in the week of November 20 to 28 this year. The results, covering old as well as new universities, were broadly supported by academics whom we contacted last week.

Professors in mathematics and engineering were unequivocal about the declining standard of incoming undergraduates; others thought the standard had changed rather than gone down. Professor Paul Jowitt, head of civil and offshore engineering at Heriot-Watt University, said: "New students are less capable. What they can do when they arrive here is certainly less than what they were able to do 15 years ago. It makes the learning process slower." Students came with other skills, he thought. They were more confident, for example.

In English, students were more widely read but not so well up on 19th- century novels or poetry, according to Professor Hermione Lee. In modern languages, knowledge of grammar had given way to the ability to communicate in real life situations, said Professor Derrik Ferney, head of languages at Anglia Polytechnic University. As a result many universities need to hold remedial classes in grammar.

All talked with feeling about the effect of spending cuts. Professor Chris Robson, of Leeds University, said he had no time any longer to mark homework for his final-year class in mathematics. Instead he gives them model solutions and asks them to mark their work themselves.

At the University of the West of England, Susan Blackmore found the teaching load so stressful that she gave up a large chunk of it and now works part time. That way she earns only pounds 14,000, a year but is able to continue with her research.

Most academics believe that higher taxes are the only way to fund higher education. The vice-chancellors' idea for paying for tuition through loans repaid over a lifetime still has a long way to go before it gains the support of the majority.

We polled 302 academics in six subject areas on five key questions. Here are their answers

1. Do you believe that the standard of undergraduates arriving at university over

the past 10 years has improved, remained the same or fallen?

"It feels to those who are trying to teach maths to incoming students that the level of attainment is not what it was. I think there are two aspects to this: there are more students going to university now, which means the average ability has declined slightly; and the A-level exam has changed. We know that the students we're getting can't do algebraic manipulation properly." - Chris Robson, professor of mathematics, Leeds University, and chairman of the Joint Mathematical Council

2. To what extent do you think that the quality of university

education has been affected by spending cuts?

"It is absolutely unquestionable that the increase in size in most academics' teaching groups and the lack of availability of books has a crushing effect." - Hermione Lee, professor of English literature at York University

3. Which of the following areas do you think have suffered the most?

"The fact is, you can't have a personal relationship with most of your students. You can't afford the time to talk to them when they need your help. You can't identify problems they might be having because you don't know them well enough, and you don't know if they're missing from a group because the groups are so big. Students can very easily feel lost and out of place." - Susan Blackmore, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of the West of England

4. Which of the following methods do you most agree with in order to

increase education funding?

"It's pie in the sky to think more funding will come from raising taxes. The surprising thing about Britain is that we have so little in the way of private universities. That would have been quite a good ploy for some. They could have brought in star academics and put in wonderful facilities and engaged in some Robin Hooding - taking from rich parents to fund poor students." - Ray Pahl, professor of sociology, Essex University

5. I feel under pressure to give students good grades

because of the need to compete in the marketplace

"Nobody I know here would condone this notion. But it can be difficult to hand back poor marks to students who look you in the eye and say `I am after a 2i. I need better marks than this.'" Professor Derrik Ferney, head of languages, Anglia Polytechnic University (Tables omitted)