University students: They can't write, spell or present an argument

No, these aren't university rejects, but students at prestigious establishments. Poets and authors are blowing the whistle on the scandal of a generation that lacks the basic skills to study for a degree. Hilary Wilce reports

Wednesday 24 May 2006 11:35 BST

University students can't write decent English. Worse, their attempts to do so show that many can't follow a logical train of thought or present a reasoned argument. In fact, growing numbers are not ready for the demands of higher education.

This damning verdict comes from professional writers who have been working with students in universities. They are shocked at what they have found, and have decided to make public a report summarising the full depths of their concerns.

"Most contemporary British students arriving at university lack the basic ability to express themselves in writing," says the prize-winning biographer Hilary Spurling, launching the report, Writing Matters.

The poet and playwright Michelene Wandor says: "They don't know what a sentence is, what a verb is, what a noun is. They struggle with apostrophes and they often don't know what tense they're writing in."

The children's author Yvonne Coppard agrees. "Their syntax and grammar are sloppy, they have sentences that draggle all over the place, you can see whole pages without paragraphs, and as for speech punctuation - I don't know what's happened to that!"

Seven years ago, the Royal Literary Fund launched a fellowship scheme to place writers in universities to help students with their writing. The idea was that working writers would be able to help students in all subject areas communicate better. Since then, 130 writers have worked in 70 universities and colleges, and there are now 60 fellows in post. They work in a range of institutions, from the top-of-the-range to the more humble, and the scheme has been very successful. All have run into the same experience of today's students' lack of skills. And now they want the world to know just how bad it is.

Nicholas Murray, a biographer, novelist and poet working at Queen Mary, University of London, says: "I have first-year English undergraduates arriving with essays so incoherent I'm not sure they would have stood up at O-level. After 13 years of education these students are just desperately unable to express what they want to say."

They don't seem to be reading either, he says. "You would think that English students would have a passion for language and literature, but it's not like that. They are excessively dependent on the internet. They think it is the source of all knowledge. One girl quoted Plato in her essay and the source she cited was Yet these are clever, energetic and imaginative students. Somewhere they've been badly let down."

Coppard, who sees students from a range of faculties at the University of Essex, and who has also worked as a writing fellow at Anglia Ruskin University, says that many have trouble following logical arguments. "They don't know how to answer a question. They struggle with that jump up from A-level. It can take a lot of time to help them, but afterwards they come back and say: 'Wow, that really made a difference!'"

The novelist Katharine McMahon, who has worked as a fellow at the University of Hertfordshire, agrees that one-to-one tutorials can bring dramatic change. "Students are often so receptive and keen and have ability, but the tools are not there. My own feeling is that it is not necessarily that they haven't been taught these things, but that they haven't taken them on board. It wasn't the right time for them. In schools teachers have to hit targets and get through a tight curriculum. Then, at university, there are a huge number of students, many from non-traditional backgrounds. Groups are big and tutors under pressure."

All the fellows agree that confidence is a huge issue. Louise Page, a playwright who has worked at Leeds Trinity and All Saints College, and is now a fellow at Edge Hill College in Lancashire, says: "We do get tears quite a lot. We have to be writers, mentors, counsellors. The lines can get very blurred. They are scared about going to their tutor. They feel they'll be judged. But when they come to us they know they'll be listened to.

"I tell them that they've done a brave thing to come and that I know what it feels like to be struggling. At school I didn't do well in English at all. I had to rewrite my 'Diary of a Stoneage Girl' 10 times, which was ironic considering all I ever wanted to be was a writer!"

Like other fellows, she sees a lot of mature students, and ones from families where higher education is a new thing. Students can write high-sounding gobbledegook, thinking that that is what academic prose should be, or struggle with basic research. "I said to one girl: 'Have you looked in the index?' and she said: 'What's an index?' They don't understand how to take good notes, and they plan their time really badly. I say, 'Now let's plan your evening. You can video EastEnders and watch it later...'

"But it can be thrilling when you see change. One of my students was really failing in the first year and thinking of giving up, but then she discovered a real passion for 18th-century literature and is now hoping to do an MA."

Dorothy Crossan, a mature student on a creative writing MA at Birkbeck College, London, sought out her writing fellow, Wandor, for help with an essay of literary criticism. "I have an honours degree but it is in social sciences, and included analysis of decision-making rather than assessment of other people's work, so I had limited experience of writing academic essays. [Michelene] was very approachable, and suggested I clarify what was being demanded. She suggested that I write copious notes of everything said in the class and then I would begin to notice trends. It was helpful. She gave me more confidence to have a go. I didn't get a particularly good mark but I did enjoy writing it."

The universities are ducking a fundamentally important issue, the fellows think. "There has been little official recognition of the problem, and no comprehensive attempt to address it," says Spurling. "Efforts in the universities to provide students with the skills they lack have been too often provisional and poorly funded. Teaching writing is still regarded as a remedial job fit only for junior staff, postgraduates and part-timers."

The writers want to see schoolteachers spending more time teaching use of the English language, and for writing to be incorporated into universities' core teaching programmes. They want universities to formulate writing development policies, and set up writing development centres. They also want to see writing explicitly marked in assignments and - not surprisingly - universities making more use of professional writers.

Their experience tells them that this will be useful for staff as well as students. "I've had academics coming to me, saying 'I've got to get my abstract down to 500 words and I've cut out everything I can think of,'" says Page. "But the people I'd most like to get my hands on are the people sending letters out to staff and students. I saw one that had an 80-word sentence with two sets of brackets. Some of them are so bad. But if this initiative doesn't come from the top, it'll never take hold."

Meanwhile, students who can't gain access to an RLF fellow say they would jump at the chance to use one. "I sometimes struggle with where to put commas in sentences," says Tara Sabi, a second-year geography student at the University of Nottingham. "It would be really useful to have someone to look over your work who wasn't a friend, and who could help you with sentence construction."

The worst language abuses

Poor grammar: Writing sentences without verbs, changing tenses within sentences, having a noun and a verb not agreeing

Poor punctuation: Not knowing how to use apostrophes or punctuate speech and quotations

Poor vocabulary: Students don't read, so their vocabularies are meagre; words are misspelled and wrongly used; slang and colloquialisms abound

Poor writing: Long words are used wrongly; overblown prose is used to try to sound academic; paragraphs are non-existent

Poor planning: Students fail to understand essay questions; find it hard to plan a piece of work; are baffled about note-taking; can't marshal a logical argument or use quotes and references to back one up; resist changing their ideas as a result of researching an essay question; rely uncritically on the internet

Poor time planning and communication: Students can be cavalier about appointments and deadlines; music and mobile phones hamper concentration; basic study skills are lacking

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