Give extra study time

January 2, 2004

Universities are dedicated to the "last-carriage principle", which states that in any railway accident the last carriage comes off worst, irrespective of the length of the train ("Luton makes it harder to fail amid dumbing-down fears", THES , December 12).

I found this to be true when I analysed student performance in physics degrees in 1968 and concluded that "the better the student cohort, the higher the entry qualifications of those who did not stay the course".

To ensure that no student allowed into the second year of our course would fail at the end of it, my department would have had to set a 60 per cent pass rate at the end of the first year. So we stopped failing students at the end of the first year, with no loss to the eventual pass rate. Hence, when Alan Smithers says that "it can be a much greater waste of everyone's time and money to have students fail at a late stage in their course", is he sure that these built-in failure practices in universities no longer exist?

What has changed is that most students now spend part of term time earning money, something not allowed in 1968. They are now no different from their US cousins, except that they are still expected to complete in the regulation time of three years, while in the US the pass rate after the corresponding four years is now below 25 per cent.

The single most important reform needed in this country is to allow students extra time for their study, and this is particularly important for "first-generation" students who, on the whole, are likely to take longer to adapt to university.

Finally, students who now, with the permission of their institutions, in reality study part time while earning during the remainder, should be classified as part time and therefore pay part-time fees.

Lewis Elton
University College London

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