Education: Today's student is a tourist, not a traveller

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The Independent Online
The expansion of higher education has produced a new breed of undergraduate: semi-literate,

ill-motivated and content to regurgitate the opinions of others, says Rob Lowe

"I red all the leaflets and complied a questionaire concerning how the bodies systems was effected by drugs. Knowing it was neccessary to do that."

No, this is not some bottom-grade GCSE candidate, struggling under the stress of examination conditions. It is a representative example of the level of written communication currently being achieved by many undergraduate students. For that reason alone, the efforts of the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, to prioritise learning the "three Rs" in primary schools are to be welcomed.

But these apparently unsatisfactory standards of literacy are symptomatic of a deeper malaise. At the root of the problem may be the expansion in student numbers without commensurate additional funding.

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.

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.

There is a tendency for most students to work only for marks and certificates, and to undervalue the learning experience itself. This is supported by my own, unpublished research on attendance rates at classes and lectures in universities in the North-east, which vary from an average of 60 per cent over the year for social sciences and humanities courses, to 80 per cent for the natural sciences. Considering that the participants are volunteers, and would therefore be expected to want to make the most of their opportunities, these figures are alarmingly low.

Teaching at universities, rightly in my opinion, still has a traditional emphasis on the value of the process, but this is frequently found unpalatable by students whose sole reason for being there is to obtain a passport to career opportunities.

Increasingly, this attitude problem is compounded by a financial one. Barclay's Bank in Sunderland reports that 35 per cent of its student customers have part-time jobs, which means that 35 per cent of students who are officially full time may be committing no more than part-time participation to their courses, a figure that fits in neatly with the attendance rate from my own research.

Then there is the broader issue of academic standards. Of students who complete their courses, 99 per cent probably get a degree of some sort. If many are able to do so on a foundation of 60 per cent attendance, and, anecdotally, with minimal reading, are lecturers imposing stringent enough demands? Alternatively, why is 40 per cent of teaching input redundant to successful achievement of a degree? Either way, there is a worrying mismatch between the hours of learning contact that the state pays for, and will continue to pay for through interest-free loans, and those which really occur.

Many students would argue that their innate ability as (intellectually) the top third of the population enables them to achieve in unfavourable circumstances. The outcome - in terms of standards in performance, as opposed to the number of Upper Second or First degrees awarded - does not support this view.

Increasingly, higher education is a mass industry comparable to tourism, with similar characteristics in delivery. The tourist is neither the traveller nor the explorer; his or her activity is guided by the tour operator, and the information its servants provide. Whereas the traveller plans ahead for the journey, and the explorer discovers, the tourist merely complies. That is exactly the case for the new-type, mass-membership student in higher education.

Compliance with the minimum demands of a course ensures a degree, though there is little evidence of any ability to manage knowledge independently; and, because everything in the course is seen as information, to be mindlessly regurgitated, there is no enthusiasm for exploratory research initiatives or intellectual journeyings.

The resentment that many students feel in undertaking an assessed study skills module as part of their course is evidence of this. "The fact that we're here already at college proves we do not need it." is the all-too- common cry. "And, even if we did, spell checks, grammar-checks, calculators, and other electronic aids to acquiring and organising information make study skills for individuals superfluous."

One nefarious side-effect of this opinion is the burgeoning use of popular encyclopaedias which just happen to be in electronic form, such as Encarta, as sources for academic citation and authority. More significantly, this attitude casts its holders as a new proletariat, dependent on a skilled elite for its competence; the students find themselves in an intellectual position similar in many ways to that of an illiterate peasantry under the educated stewardship of the medieval churches.

Those few who claim leadership on the basis of knowing, mediate for the many who are content to follow; so much for "higher" education. It seems that the universities are neither fulfilling their liberal role of providing for a community of scholars, who learn to think independently within their environs, nor responding successfully to the external demands of business and government.

The extent to which students lack knowledge of how to implement even the basic requirements of educated communication is demonstrated in research carried out under my supervision by students at University College, Stockton. They examined other students' levels of literacy, numeracy, and cultural literacy (general knowledge). Using a sample of students stratified by degree (social sciences, natural sciences and humanities), researchers measured achievement with straightforward multiple-choice tests of punctuation, spelling, grammar, calculation and general knowledge. More than a quarter of the sample scored less than 40 per cent for numeracy, the mean average score being 60 per cent. Literacy was slightly better, with an average score of 70 per cent, but in general knowledge the average student scored only 55 per cent. If media-oriented questions such as "What is Winnie the Pooh's favourite food?" were excluded, the level dropped to nearer 40 per cent.

Natural scientists scored predictably lower on literacy and cultural literacy than their humanities peers, but, stripped of the facility of a calculator, they did not not always score more highly on numeracy.

It could be that our educational system is failing us. On the other hand, it may be that policy-makers and senior educators have unrealistic expectations.

Reading, writing and arithmetic are complex and challenging skills, much more so than, for example, craftsmanship, technology and sport, in none of which does society demand near-universal competence from its members.

Perhaps the main reasons we do so for the "three Rs" are a recognition that their mastery is essential in the complex global economy, and a vague feeling that, without them, an individual is somehow lacking in authoritative humanity.

A more sensible view might be that, because of the sophisticated nature of human communication, it will always be the case that an elite minority maintains its purity and probity (as in the so-called Dark Ages), while a subordinate majority utilises its potential with degrees of deficiency.

From that position, a better way forward for the universities than is provided by current policies would be to recognise that their student intake embraces a wide range of abilities and talents; and that 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.

The problems of high drop-out rates, half-hearted attendance, shaky motivation and declining standards of intellectual demand, may be solved, in my view, only by adapting some variation of the North American system to UK conditions - ie virtually open access to higher education, with a hierarchy of institutions streaming delivery to distinct pedagogic goals.

It is not revolutionary. The model of instruction implied by Plato, in which what we now call skills, information-management and speculative thinking are seen as ascending levels of attainment, already provides a template.

The writer is a lecturer at University College, Stockton, a constituent college of the University of Durham.