Letters: Lecturers have seen standards plummet

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Sir: Your front page headlines on the failure of the Government's education policies will shock many people (22 September); however, they come as little shock to myself and many thousands of lecturers in higher education.

I have been a lecturer for 20 years in a number of universities across Britain and I have witnessed a drop in academic standards so profound that the intellectual quality of degrees these days is akin to O-level standards of two decades ago.

In the university where I now work, we have to provide new students with basic writing, reading and study skills and even with this, they produce assignments which are, in many cases, illegible.

Their ability to critically discuss, analyse and evaluate is so poor that we now don't expect many of them to do anything other than basic description and this relates, not just to mature students or those from under-privileged backgrounds, but to a broad range of all students.

I also assess A-level exam papers and, once again, the system of "positive-marking" means that if pupils simply use certain buzz-words, they pass; we are not allowed to take marks off them for poor writing.

This situation is not helped by a recent trend in recruitment in many universities of employing lecturers whose academic qualifications consist of a 2:1 or 2:2 degree with no research profiles whatsoever.

The level of disillusion among many lecturers is unprecedented - if we complain about falling standards, we risk victimisation or losing our jobs. The future is very bleak indeed.

NAME AND ADDRESS SUPPLIED

Striving to attract state school pupils

Sir: It is with a sense of injustice that I note UCL's position among those universities once again under the spotlight for failing to attract more state school pupils (22 September), given that we continue to invest a great deal of time and money into our widening participation activities.

We do not do this with a view to ticking the right boxes, but because, as the first university to have admitted students from any race, class or religion, we believe it is both in line with our historic mission and the right thing to do.

I have two particular misgivings about the figures published by HESA. First, the benchmark that universities are measured against is, I believe, flawed. Whereas previously the potential pool for universities such as ours included only those who met our entrance criteria (generally three good A-levels), the goalposts have now been shifted. The new method for calculating the benchmark is based on the whole Ucas tariff, which means that according to this calculation top universities should consider eligible any pupil who secures a set number of points, regardless of whether these were achieved through the vocational or academic route. A university like UCL inevitably loses out as a consequence of this method of calculation.

Second, we cannot ignore the fact that, with the best will in the world, many of the courses that we teach face real difficulties in raising state sector participation. To use just one example; we were the first university to offer degrees in modern European languages, and continue to pioneer "smaller" languages such as Icelandic and Dutch. A government strategy that makes languages optional at the age of 14 will hardly assist a university committed to its language programme to take an increasing number of students from schools and areas that would improve our benchmarks.

PROFESSOR MICHAEL WORTON

VICE PROVOST, UCL LONDON WC1

Sir: It's abundantly clear neither the liberal press nor New Labour have grasped emergent social realities and instead retain an antiquated picture of education and its significance.

University education no longer guarantees "middle class" status, or even employment. This is why Liberal Arts graduates typically end up teaching, or stacking books. Graduate scientists typically earn far less than telesales managers and plumbers.

Our economy does not generate enough middle class jobs. Churning out graduates is pointless if only dead-end jobs are available. Schools cannot ameliorate entrenched social problems such as economic inequality and a youth culture that actively promotes anti-social aggression. As the political establishment has abdicated responsibility for social progress, education has to shoulder responsibility for myriad problems external to its real remit. Thus teachers are now unpaid child psychiatrists for the most fearsomely alienated youth in Western Europe, an onerous task for which they were never trained.

In truth, the education mantra is a neutralisation programme concocted to mask true unemployment figures and to dupe excluded youth into quiescence. Maybe those truants and college dropouts rejecting education simply perceive this more lucidly than the politicians and educationalists roped off from social reality.

JOHN KEANE

WARRINGTON

The English need a Parliament too

Sir: During the Labour Party conference, we'll hear much about Tony Blair's attempts to impose democracy on Iraq. Why isn't anyone pointing out how he has, at the same time, destroyed democracy in Britain? Since powers were devolved to Wales and Scotland, his policies only affect England, which is the only country that didn't vote for Labour. A union of countries cannot co-exist peacefully unless all are treated equally. England needs its own Parliament and equal access to democracy, with exactly the same powers as the Parliament Tony Blair gave his own country, Scotland. This discrimination must be corrected, because the systematic erasure of England is nothing short of a massive scandal.

DELLA PETCH

DRIFFIELD, EAST YORKSHIRE

Sir: John Vosper (Letters, 21 September) attacks Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats for supporting the break-up of the NHS and suggests that they will lose votes to the Labour.

The break-up of the NHS was signalled in July of this year by the NHS chief executive, Sir Nigel Crisp, in a letter to NHS Trust Chief Executives. Using ill-defined concepts such as "choice" and "contestability" to disguise the nature of the policy, the break up of the NHS as a provider of health care in the UK is already Labour Party policy. The Health Service Journal recently described a district nursing service in the south of England being prepared for privatisation; primary care trusts are being given deadlines by their strategic health authorities to divest themselves of their provider departments, such as community nursing, mental health services and health visiting.

I presume we will discover in Brighton whether other Labour supporters are aware of what their government is doing to the National Health Service and whether they are bothered.

TIM WOODWARD

HEYSHAM, LANCASHIRE

Kennedy could be PM-in-waiting

Sir: Steve Richards' comparison of Charles Kennedy and Harold Wilson was instructive (Opinion, 23 September). As a student in the early 1970s I was impatient with Harold Wilson's equivocation over the War in Vietnam. Thirty years on I recognise that his manoeuvrings in the face of pressure to send troops to join the United States forces was far preferable to a Blair-style capitulation. Looking back in 2035 a young person of today may judge that Kennedy's leadership allowed the Liberal Democrats to become a party of government. For that prediction to come true Mr Kennedy will need to show the same courage in leading the political debate as he has done in opposing the occupation of Iraq.

IAIN BRODIE BROWNE

BIRKDALE, MERSEYSIDE

Tories should back EU extradition

Sir: With the return of London bombing suspect Hussain Osman to our shores (report, 23 September), it's time for the Tories to rethink their stand on the European arrest warrant.

Without this crucial EU-wide agreement, it would have taken years for Britain to secure Mr Osman's extradition from Rome. So perhaps the Tories could explain why they so violently opposed this measure when it was first introduced? Was this yet another case of anti-European posturing in an attempt to appeal to the eurosceptic fringe, or did they have genuine doubts about its effectiveness?

If the latter, no doubt they will now be quick to admit their error and clarify their revised position on European judicial co-operation?

RICHARD CORBETT MEP

(YORKSHIRE AND THE HUMBER, LAB) LEEDS

Faith schools will cement divisions

Sir: Trevor Phillips, of the Commission for Racial Equality, is right to raise the issue of rapidly separating communities in this country (report 22 September). The creation of ghettos is always dangerous, but even more so in the present climate of suspicion and paranoia.

In order to pre-empt the further hardening of this separation, the Government needs to urgently change two of its policies. The first thing it should do is stop encouraging whole communities from identifying themselves by their religion. This practice allows the most conservative theocrats to pose as "community leaders", when there are huge sections of the communities they purport to represent which have no interest in religion. The Government must consult much more widely among Muslims. At present it assumes them all to be mosque-going, Koran-reading faithful. Our experience is that this is far from the case.

The Government's second error is the encouragement of the expansion of single faith schools. The news that 150 Islamic schools are to be brought into the state sector is profoundly depressing, but it is difficult to refuse this request when so many Christian schools receive state funding. Separating children from each other on the basis of their parents' religion is asking for disaster. Mr Blair's enthusiasm for "faith schools" is leading us to educational apartheid.

We know there is little hope that New Labour will heed either of these suggestions, but by not doing so, it is aggravating a problem that will, in the future, pose a threat to us all.

TERRY SANDERSON

VICE-PRESIDENT NATIONAL SECULAR SOCIETY LONDON WC1

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