Education Letters: Getting working-class school leavers into research-driven universities

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Yet again we have the suggestion that it is obviously a "good thing" to get more working-class school leavers into the research-driven universities ("The cost of making the wrong choice", EDUCATION 7 CAREERS, 24 July) . Is it really in anyone's interests to perpetuate this concept of what is best for individual students?

Research-obsessed universities might represent the best in research, but it is evident that they do not provide what many people from less traditional backgrounds want. I suggest that they would do well to examine whether their courses and curricula, let alone their image and style, are relevant to the needs of the students they are being encouraged to attract.

Mike Goldstein, Streetly, Staffs

Bust the sats myths

As a member of the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors and someone who has, in the past, marked GCE, GCSE and national curriculum test scripts, I have been following the recent story of problems in the delivery of results for so-called SATs with great interest.

Although I knew what ETS was like, I applied in January to mark national curriculum tests (English, Key Stage 3 writing) but by the time that I was finally offered a contract (on the day that KS3 tests began) I had given it up as a bad job – literally. In my opinion, a major failing of ETS is that they put too much faith in using technology for the whole test process, particularly as the technology that they use does not seem to be fit for purpose. The test operation is massive, needing superb organisation and software as well as testing and marking expertise if it is to succeed.

There are a lot of myths and misunderstandings about the tests, about their purpose, their status, and so on. For example, it's commonly believed that the test scores say what level the children have reached in mathematics, English and science and give the end of key stage result. Not so. The tests are just tests – not public exams. There's no official certificate for them and they provide no "qualifications". It's really sad that parents have spoken to the media about how their children have been preparing for SATs for a whole year. Mr Balls really must do something about this ridiculous state of affairs and get schools to keep the tests in perspective rather than pretend that they are the be-all and end-all.

Peter Tallon, by email

Your article, "Heads must roll over the SATs debacle" (E&C, 24 July), states that "AQA stood down" from marking the tests in 2004. This is incorrect. AQA was only contracted to mark the tests until 2004 and the contract naturally ceased after this point.

Claire Ellis, public affairs manager, AQA

India can have it all

In her article ("An uphill passage to India", E&C, 17 July) Shailaja Neelakantan makes important points for and against foreign university campuses in India. However, one point not mentioned is that it does not have to be an either/or situation. More government investment in local Indian institutions and colleges of higher education, and allowing foreign universities to set up campuses in India can happen simultaneously. This can only benefit the 90 per cent of "India's 90 million university-age citizens", allowing more people to acquire a degree who otherwise might not have secured a place in the limited spaces available in India.

There are many other models, besides that of foreign universities setting up campuses in India: partnerships between foreign universities and their Indian counterparts are possible. Some have the benefit of requiring relatively little investment by the Indian partner. This would make foreign or joint degrees possible at local costs in India, a win-win situation for all.

For example, Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) at the University of Warwick has run just such a collaborative programme with a partner in India to benefit employees of Indian industry. Students from industry study WMG's postgraduate engineering and technology courses in their home country. We have also recently set up a partnership with IIT Kharagpur to collaborate on research and educational matters leading to similar opportunities.

Sujit Banerji. Professor of operations management; executive director, postgraduate programmes, WMG, University of Warwick

Quality control

Susan Bassnett is right to say that quality assurance processes and standards are not perfect and that there is a need for a radical overhaul (E&C, 17 July). But how radical should we be? Quality assurance and enhancement cannot ignore new policy directions as well as wider economic, environmental and social trends. Our approach to quality emphasises the role of higher education in serving economic interests which restricts how quality is defined. Hence, value for money, completion rates, graduate employment and graduate earnings feature strongly. Does this mean that a degree becomes equivalent to a share certificate whose value is determined by the issuing university?

More value should be given to how learning contributes to non-economic functions such as shaping a democratic and sustainable society. Universities have a significant role in developing "earth literate" leaders and optimising their contribution to the future of society and the environment, not only the future of the economy. But sustainability in this sense does not feature in our quality assurance procedures and standards criteria.

Hefce has just launched a consultation on sustainable development in higher education. This is an opportunity to embed sustainability into quality assurance procedures. As David Eastwood, Hefce's chief executive, said recently, "Sustainability matters".

Prof Stephen Martin (former HMI), Maureen Martin, Evesham, Worcs

Language barrier

I am one of the 28 per cent of trainee teachers who did not take up a teaching post in schools. I am currently employed at a university teaching language modules to non-specialists (beginners and GCSE level).

Trainee teachers are encouraged to follow a teaching methodology that is unrealistic in classes of 25 to 30 pupils and that ends up resembling teaching a parrot to talk. The school syllabus is tedious. The poor quality of materials and text books in schools means that teachers spent an inordinate amount of time creating their own materials.

When I was training, even experienced teachers admitted that they were often working late into the night to prepare for classes. All that effort for such paltry outcomes: this may be the reason why many trainees decide not to continue. In my opinion, school is one of the worst places to learn a language.

Alison Nader, Reading

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