Philip Hensher: The awful truth about our universities

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The Independent Online

The Royal Literary Fund, since 1999, has been running a fellowship scheme in British universities. Professional writers are placed in universities, not as "writers in residence" but as practical helpers to students - and, it turns out, often to staff as well - with writing skills. This might include such unambitious tasks as writing letters or job applications, as well as essays. In the last seven years, more than 130 writers have been placed in over 70 universities. The RLF has just issued a report, based on their experiences. It makes terrifying reading.

Students whose work is "so incoherent that it's difficult to discern what argument is being furthered"; students unable to write a comprehensible sentence; students unable to spell quite simple words; students with no grasp whatsoever of punctuation. In a speech to a gathering organised by the Royal Society of Literature and the RLF, Hilary Spurling reported that "the single word that crops up more than any other in accounts of [the fellows'] experience is 'shock'."

The work of the RLF is admirable, and it has evidently achieved great things in individual cases. But no one can doubt that, after 20 years in which we have been told that educational standards are rising, year on year, the standard of literacy in our universities has never been lower.

How has this come about? The truth is that testing in schools, even in discursive subjects, has been reduced to a culture of ticking boxes, of putting together a set of bullet points, and hardly ever of mounting an argument in coherent prose. Together with the decline of foreign language teaching - which often supplied a useful understanding of grammatical structure - this has led to a generation of students of whom many are unable to write five consecutive English sentences without making a mistake.

It is an extraordinary situation, and if many in the educational establishment seem happy to overlook it, few employers take it lightly. Research conducted by the Royal Mail puts the cost of poor grammar and spelling mistakes at more than £700m a year. Another report by the Cabinet Office's Strategy Unit, published by the TUC, estimates the cost at £10bn. Writing may be becoming more, not less important, as business is conducted through e-mail; as the RLF reminds us, an e-mail is a legally enforceable document, in which vagueness about grammar and meaning may have expensive consequences.

No wonder the graduate recruitment manager of Network Rail throws away 50 per cent of all graduate applications because "their content comes close to gobbledygook." No wonder, too, that many businesses conclude that there is little point in taking on graduate trainees when it may be necessary to teach them correct English, preferring to take people straight from school.

The RLF's enterprise is a splendid, low-cost attempt to address a very serious situation. Nevertheless, when there may be one fellow in a university of more than 10,000 students, what they can achieve is limited. We are coming rapidly to the point where universities are going to have to run remedial courses in English grammar before their products meet the most ordinary standards of achievement in the eyes of the outside world.

That is a grotesque situation, and one that really ought to be addressed by schools rather than universities. In the meantime, I recommend everyone to get hold of the RLF's report, Writing Matters. It makes no bones at all about what, by any standards, is a disgraceful situation.

A few sketches short of the full Michelangelo

The British Museum's exhibition of Michelangelo's drawings looks absolutely splendid, with high-tech displays and lucid explanations of a few undeniably magnificent drawings. But ...

For a start, it turns out to be the product of a decidedly expansionist approach to the corpus of Michelangelo's drawings. Close readers of the catalogue will discover that only three of the works on show - such as his portrait of Andrea Quaratesi, right - are universally accepted as his.

Odder still, the exhibition is limited to the holdings of just three museums - the BM, the Ashmolean and the Teyler. Of course, drawings can't always be on display, and there are some wonderful discoveries here. But I do think the public will expect something more than the collection, in bulk, of three museums.

We rather like a sense of behind-the-scenes wheedling and threats, drawings borrowed under duress and exhibited in triumph. We certainly want a sense of critical selection. The sad result is that what sounds like a grand enterprise dissolves, under inspection, into a collection of "what we've got, and what we've been landed with".

* "Is it just me," a friend remarked the other day, "or has the Duchess of Cornwall suddenly become a very good-looking woman?" He was quite right; suddenly, she is. But then again, I remember that the late Princess of Wales wasn't really regarded as being a great beauty until her marriage.

There's an interesting question here. Is it merely a question of investment, of facials, magnificent jewellery and a really good wardrobe? Or do aesthetic standards slip around obligingly, taking for the moment as a standard so intrinsically glamorous a figure as the wife of the heir to the throne? Certainly, the Prince and the Duchess have recently become conspicuous figures in society, turning up to publishers' parties and sending civil messages to lunches at The Oldie. It seems only polite for one's aesthetic standards to return the compliment, and conclude that, indeed, the Duchess has become not just admirable and clearly likeable but really rather beautiful.