Universities told to reject students who cannot spell

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UNIVERSITIES should reject applicants who use bad grammar and cannot spell properly, the Secretary of State for Education told vice-chancellors yesterday.

John Patten said that academics should not simply stand on the sidelines and complain if candidates lack basic skills - nor should they contemplate introducing preliminary remedial years for new students.

The minister's remarks follow the recent publication of research by a London University don, which found that lecturers judge between one-fifth and one-third of their students to be poor users of English. The survey of 17 universities, carried out by Bernard Lamb, a reader in genetics at Imperial College, London, found that half the departments would like to teach all undergraduates written English, and more than a quarter wish to teach spoken English. At least 43 per cent of departments already give informal remedial English tuition.

Mr Patten told the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals at their annual conference in Exeter: 'If schools fail to bring candidates up to the necessary level in terms of basic skills, then you - the vice-chancellors and principals - should make your requirements known to schools. If pupils cannot meet your requirements, don't admit them. That will ensure that schools adapt and improve. Don't simply complain about the standard of English.'

He told them not to entertain ideas of a remedial year for first- year undergraduates. 'If schools fail to provide the quality of candidates sought by universities, that is no argument for universities themselves to provide courses to bring them up to scratch.'

Universities should not see themselves as the victims of 'what some schools are alleged to produce . . . the nation needs you to lead from the front, not stand murmuring with resignation on the sidelines', Mr Patten said.

The average student leaves college with debts of pounds 1,765 - and blames the Government, according to a survey published yesterday. Research carried out by Barclays Bank with NUS Services Ltd found that the Government- backed loan scheme accounts for 31 per cent of current debt, bank overdrafts for 25 per cent and borrowings from families for a further 21 per cent.