The View From Here

Colleges will, supposedly, admit any young person with a detectable pulse

Oh no! Here we go again. It's the start of the new academic year and, as the colleges' corridors fill with the eager faces of new students, the usual cacophony starts up in the press - a chorus of doom-laden voices inveighing against "falling standards in our universities".

Actually, it all begins in August. A year ago my own daughter was anxiously pacing the hall of a morning, waiting for the dreaded envelope that would contain her A-level results.

The day before they were actually due, one of our respected broadsheets ran a front-page story about the scandalous decline in standards at A- level - an "A" grade was no longer worth the paper it was written on, particularly in humanities. Project work and continuously assessed performance had eroded "objective" exam-based grading.

By the time the aforementioned envelope actually came, Rachel had been informed by a pack of journalists (all of whom, we gather, got straight As according to the old, "gold" standard of measurement) that her grades were worthless and that the reward she had aspired to with all her year- long effort was a sham.

So here we are in October, and they're at it again. Students are being admitted to our universities (we are assured) who can't count and can't spell, who failed their A-levels, or who gained undeservedly high grades (because marking is now "soft"). Colleges competing for scarce funding are, supposedly, prepared to admit any young person with a detectable pulse (particularly for science courses), or any older person who walks in off the street, for that matter, as a "mature student". Classrooms are packed with undeserving second-raters who ought not to be receiving degree-level education at taxpayers' expense.

Well, the classrooms certainly are crowded. We've had to order new folding chairs at Queen Mary and Westfield to fit them in. And many of the students do not come from the traditional sorts of family that used automatically to send their children on from school to higher education.

Some of them are, indeed, as old as their teachers - "returners" getting a second chance at a degree qualification. Their talents, however, are as varied as their backgrounds and ages: they are multilingual, much travelled, they have cruised the Internet and gleaned information beyond anything their elders knew at the same age, they can already use a word processor, they can install software, they have read books we never read and formed opinions about plays and films we still haven't seen. They are also full of enthusiasm to learn and prepared to put up with financial hardship to do so.

How do you suppose it feels to be one of this new, committed, energised bunch of students embarking on a university career when the wrinklies in the media insist they are markedly inferior to the students of the past? It's not very helpful for a clever Muslim girl from the East End to be compared with those who treated access to Oxford and Cambridge as a birthright - and to be found intellectually inferior. Because, you see, what all this pessimism really comes down to is what we believe a university education is for.

This summer, I spent the period of the saturation coverage of the Olympic Games in France with my family. French television was in high excitement about how successful the French athletes were proving against international competition, how many medals they were winning. We watched hour after hour of kayak racing in turbulent water, ribbon dancing by androgynous girls in the rhythmic gymnastics and earnest, unsmiling cyclists on streamlined bicycles.

You could have been forgiven for believing that there were no track competitions - no 110-metre hurdles, pole vault or long jump - because, you see, no French athletes got past the heats in any of those sports.

Those who insist that our children ought to be learning their times tables or endlessly practising their spelling and punctuation, and that these are the crucial skills for the 21st century, remind me of the rhythmic gymnastics enthusiasts.

It just doesn't seem to me that they're putting their energies and encouragement behind meaningful undertakings for the millennium. Problem-solving, information- gathering, challenging received wisdom, reaching out beyond the expected, these are the aptitudes the next generation of young people need to succeed in their own lives and to rebuild Britain's flagging economy.

And as most university teachers will tell you, our classrooms are full of new-style students whose grasp on these new skills and willingness to learn more are an inspirationn

The writer is professor of English at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London, and a writer and broadcaster. Her new book, 'Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance', is published by Macmillan, price pounds 25.

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