Leader: We must tackle the literacy crisis

March 30, 2007

It is a mark of how committed academics are to their students and to teaching that there has been no outcry nationally over the levels of students' preparedness for university study.

Lecturers do not lightly criticise the standards of student literacy and numeracy or their capacity for critical thinking, and it was only through journalistic endeavour that The Times Higher was afforded an insight into the genuine and serious concerns raised in a closed web forum by academics at the University of Central Lancashire.

There is little or no benefit to academics in publicly berating the quality of their students because, at the end of the day, it is their job to bring those students up to a set standard by the end of the course, regardless of the starting point. Furthermore, as professional teachers, academics are ill-disposed to attacking their charges.

And yet the question on many lips is: "Where does it all end?" Do academics continue to run first-year remedial classes in numeracy and literacy, in effect, doing the work that ought to have been done in secondary school?

And what does this mean for the nature of academe? Is it now the job of academics to teach students to reach the standards of literacy and numeracy that a generation or so ago would have been achieved before leaving school.

Has anyone told academics this is now part of their job?

These are all questions raised by academics and told to The Times Higher in recent weeks.

Many blame an education system that rewards schools for getting pupils through exams at any cost. Schools have lost a certain depth to the education they provide, they argue.

Others point to the "bums-on-seats" economics of modern higher education, which can mean accepting students, including growing numbers from overseas, on to courses for which they could be better prepared.

There is no simple answer, and academics know this. But, given the pace of change in all areas of education in recent years, it would seem that the time is right for an honest and open debate on the qualities we expect from those entering university and the role of those who will teach them.

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