Could do better?

Some maths students can't multiply, some English undergraduates can't spell. Have academic standards in universities really fallen so far behind?
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The Independent Online
What do you need to read mathematics at university? A detectable pulse. So goes the joke doing the rounds among academics on campus. Then there is the story of the English fresher at Leicester University who wrote an essay about a "grate righter" and others who blithely begin a line with a fullstop or a comma when they cannot fit the punctuation in appropriately! Can't add, can't spell, can't write essays - there are those who say that the standards of our undergraduates have fallen lower than a dachshund's derriere.

This "gone to the dogs" theory is trumpeted in a new book, All Must Have Prizes (Little, Brown, pounds 17.50), by the journalist Melanie Phillips. She makes the following claims: that university dons are in a state of despair about the low levels of knowledge presented by the young people turning up to read for their degrees; that there is a yawning gap between the standards reached by British schoolchildren and their European counterparts; that universities have to a large extent become the secondary schools' remedial sector; that young people are arriving at university stripped of the basic knowledge of the subject they are to study at an advanced level, and that these are students who have achieved excellent A-level grades, the "gold standard" of the British school education system.

For this gloomy assessment to be true, the level expected of A-level candidates must have sunk significantly. But the findings of a major inquiry into standards, due to be published at Christmas by the independent A-levels watchdog, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, suggests that standards in virtually all A-level examination subjects have remained unchanged over the past 20 years. The fact that more and more students are taking A-levels and greater numbers are achieving higher grades cannot therefore be taken as proof that the certificate has been devalued. As the spokesman of one of the A-level examining boards, George Turnbull, says: "In 1953, no one had climbed Mount Everest, yet within the last year, 38 people climbed it in a single day. Does that mean the mountain has got any easier?"

So, is the trashing of our undergraduates merely the loose talk and partisan innuendo of traditionalists fighting a lost cause and who, like Ms Phillips, bemoan the loss of the authoritarian (and perhaps elitist) approach to education? After all, 30 years ago only 3 per cent of students went to university compared with one in three of the cohort today. In fact, there are more students on campus in 1996 than attended grammar school in the Sixties. With the massive expansion of the higher education sector - begun with the construction of the "plate glass" universities in the Sixties and continued with the polytechnics being allowed to call themselves universities in the Nineties - it stands to reason that some places in lower-league universities will be filled by less able students.

Perhaps we ought to refine the question: have the standards of our undergraduates at the top and middle-ranking universities slipped? And if so, is this a serious problem? Those who ought to know are the veteran professors who, for decades, have been on the front line putting freshers in English and Maths - the twin pillars of our educational firmament - through their paces.

Tom Korner, director of studies in mathematics at Trinity Hall, Cambridge for the past 25 years, admits that five years ago Cambridge had to "radically simplify" its maths syllabus, traditionally the most difficult in the country, because of the substantially reduced knowledge of candidates. "Certain topics that used to be part of A-levels ... were de-emphasised in schools because they were deemed too difficult and boring for the average student," he says. "As a result, we have had to teach them in our first year and have had to displace some first-year topics into the second year."

One might expect Mr Korner to be distressed about this, but he isn't. "The traditional maths syllabus needed to be modernised," he insists. "It was intended for a small elite travelling on a well-defined path towards becoming physicists, engineers or mathematicians, whereas now we provide for a wider group of students with more diverse goals. We've had to reassess the question: what is maths for? The problem is we went too far ... We have to find the right balance, but the answer is certainly not as simple as the traditionalist's call to 'reverse the clock' towards a purist, authoritarian approach."

But taking the liberal view is a luxury Mr Korner can afford: his students are so bright, he claims, that by the time they finish their degrees, their competence is comparable to Cambridge graduates of any decade. The real gnashing of teeth, he admits, is among academics in the physics and engineering faculties who have to rely on a certain level of maths being embedded in undergraduates, and among the maths dons of universities lower down the pecking order, the redbricks, "where falling standards are causing great alarm and distress".

Tony Gardiner knows all about "the next level down". A lecturer in mathematics for 20 years at the University of Birmingham, one of the best civic campuses in the country, he lives in what he calls "the real world" - a dig at the rarefied "out of touch"Oxbridge dons. In just five years, he has watched the student body on his campus double from 10,000 to 20,000.

"I have to be honest - the standard of our undergraduates has plummeted," he says bluntly. "We have large numbers of students who are ineducable ... There are key bits of mathematics - like being able to do mental multiplication and simplification in algebra - that everyone has to get their head around or they are completely stuffed. Yet they are hardly covered by the national curriculum. The latest fad is to emphasise approximation and guesswork on the grounds that employers value 'seat-of-the-pants judgement'. We are making fools of ourselves. The only way you can approximate intelligently is if you know how to do it exactly ... Maths has suffered an egalitarian trend which says, 'Let each child discover the answer their way.' Well, there's no way they can. And when they come into my class, 140 of them, all having learnt it 'their way', how am I supposed to teach them?"

Gardiner's sentiments are widespread. A report entitled Tackling the Mathematics Problem, published by the London Mathematical Society in October 1995, states that "there is unprecedented concern among mathematicians, scientists and engineers in higher education about the mathematical preparedness of new undergraduates".

What is to be done? "Other countries, like France and Germany, manage to teach maths to a broad clientele and yet still retain a clear idea of which bits of maths are essential to everyone's school-leaving certificate," argues Mr Gardiner. "We have to accept that mathematics was not discovered by people leaning on lamp-posts and that mental rigour and struggle goes with the territory. If that sounds unsexy and authoritarian, so be it."

What about English? There, it appears, the consensus among the cognoscenti is more positive.

Gordon Campbell, professor of English at Leicester University, a mid- ranking university where he has taught for 17 years, says: "On balance, today's English undergraduates are brighter than their predecessors. They may have less knowledge of the classics, but they understand more and they learn quicker. Sure, they (and the curriculum) have their weaknesses: their vocabularies are more limited; their sentences are shorter and simpler; spelling is increasingly phonetic and error-strewn; and traditional essay- writing skills can no longer be taken for granted. But, positively, they have a more sophisticated literary sense, they have read more broadly, their analytical skills are sharper, their essays are more original, they have wider general knowledge and they have a more developed understanding of the various elements of the media. They have been taught to think and they can think. That is all we ask."

But conservative academics who worry about grammar may be less sanguine about the trade-off. Ultimately, however, judgement depends on what one prizes more highly. As Lisa Jardine, professor of English at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London, says: "When I started teaching 25 years ago, my students were passive and docile. Today, they can think on their feet. If you value the accumulation of facts and regard the teenage mind as a data bank, then you will be depressed about standards.

But if you think of the teenage mind as a processor for enriching their ability to solve problems, you will be hugely exhilarated." Grate righter notwithstanding.