UK still suffers trips of the tongues
Your editorial “A timely look under the bonnet” (22 August) is right to draw attention to the issue of language degrees, but one of the figures was inaccurate. As of 23 August, the number of students starting a language degree was not down by 13 per cent but by less than 0.5 per cent.
At A level, overall numbers fell by 4.5 per cent, while the move away from French and German and towards Spanish, Portuguese and other languages continues. At GCSE level, the English Baccalaureate effect meant that language entries were up by 15.5 per cent, and once again Spanish is the main beneficiary, showing a 25.8 per cent increase.
Nevertheless, the picture remains worrying for two reasons. First, UK exporters are under-performing because they are over-reliant on English-speaking markets. This costs the British economy billions of pounds a year in lost revenue. Second, languages are at risk of becoming the preserve of a social elite, taught only at high-achieving schools that advise their pupils to target only the most selective universities, and thus accelerating the concentration of provision in ever fewer institutions.
The university language community is responding actively. We are stimulating interest and demand through Routes into Languages, a programme supported by the Higher Education Funding Council for England that involves 80 universities. We are devising new curricula and means of delivery that can attract a new type of student into language study. And we are stressing that foreign languages, like literacy and numeracy, are skills that everyone needs to possess. The number of students in UK universities who include one or more languages in their degree programme is rising fast as they recognise that graduates offering language skills, whether or not they have followed a specialist language degree, are in high demand and can enter a wide range of rewarding international careers.
University Council of Modern Languages
The point of NSS is points
It is hardly surprising that institutions use gaming strategies to try to bolster their scores on the National Student Survey (“Hold bad news about grades until after NSS”, 15 August). This has been clear from the start of the NSS.
It is good that Duna Sabri’s work is beginning to highlight what many of us have been aware of since the genesis of the survey: the situation seems to grow ever worse. The reason for this is that the NSS was always intended as a quality measurement tool and not an improvement tool; as a result, it forces institutions to focus on scores rather than driving them to explore genuine improvements to the student experience.
The NSS undoubtedly needs review. However, something more than a league table – whether of satisfaction or, as it is likely to be, “student engagement” – will be required to involve institutions in a genuine discourse on quality improvement.
Associate editor, Quality in Higher Education
Faculty of Education, Law and Social Sciences
Birmingham City University
To those academic colleagues wrestling with the conundrum of students’ research comparing the satisfaction levels of customers at McDonald’s and Le Gavroche (Letters, 22 August), may I say that I think the original decision to fail the assessment on the grounds of faulty methodology was correct, regardless of the NSS analogy.
The students have naively missed the fact that one of the key drivers of satisfaction is expectation balanced against price paid. If both restaurants were charging the same amounts, as the better universities tend to do for their undergraduate education, then perhaps the satisfaction results would have been different and more in line with the NSS outcomes.
To take the McDonald’s analogy one step further, I would be keen to know how many of the academics who needed help with this conundrum will be having four stars against their name badges once REF results are known.
Name and address supplied
The very useful perspectives reported in the feature “Putting women in the frame” (22 August) nonetheless require clarification on two points. First, although some external funding bodies have chosen to link achievement of Athena SWAN awards to funding stipulations – thus giving the Equality Challenge Unit the appearance of having regulatory functions – the ECU in fact plays no role in any external body’s decision to allocate funding to a higher education institution.
Second, while the Department of Health announcement certainly encouraged some additional institutions and departments to consider Athena SWAN, our experience is that they are usually keen to address the issue of under-representation quite separately from the stipulations of funding bodies.
Equality Challenge Unit
The article “‘Political experiment’ must not reduce education to a commodity” (15 August) informs us that “the UK’s pool of higher education experts…has arguably taken a turn to the right”. It then announces the arrival at the University of Southampton of Jürgen Enders, “who comes to the UK with a deep scepticism about the perceived attempt to turn higher education into a market and the student into a consumer”.
This leads one to hope that some radical changes are about to be proposed from the Left. Not so. What we hear instead is that Enders does not believe that it is truly possible to create a market in education because it is hard to gauge the value of a course; he is worried about the drift towards “degree mills”; he does not object to students contributing to the cost of tuition; he would be surprised if British students started turning their backs on university; and he believes that “nobody quite knows if [in international ventures] students are any brighter after graduation”.
Given that Enders describes English higher education as a “wonderful real-life laboratory” in which to study “radical policies” and their impact on universities, teaching and research, he is presumably going to make some concrete suggestion for improvement.
If so, he might well be looking for some very different “radical policies”. He could turn his attention to Venezuela, where 134 indigenous Venezuelans are heading off to begin study at the Latin American University of Medicine in Miranda State on the condition that they return afterwards to serve their local communities (a similar reasonable request was made to me when I was seconded on full pay by the Inner London Education Authority to do a master’s).
Education in Venezuela is, of course, political. However, as I argue in the forthcoming book Education and Social Change in Latin America, which I edited with Sara Motta: “whereas in the UK…the capitalist state increasingly uses formal education merely as a vehicle to promote capitalism, in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, ‘the political’ in education is articulated against capitalism and imperialism and for socialism”.
Cass School of Education and Communities
University of East London
As much as I can see why many people would think that overturning the Oxbridge rule of combination would make the applications process “fairer” (“Competition questions over rule that restricts applications to Oxbridge”, 15 August), I have to conclude that such a decision would be misguided.
Not only do I feel extremely uncomfortable with reducing the pursuit of education to a sterile object guided by “competition law”, I also think that not enough people appreciate the sheer number of hours that go into making a stellar application to Cambridge or to Oxford. As the University of Oxford spokesman quoted in the article explains, sacking off the rule and “widening the pool”, so to speak, would almost certainly jeopardise the holistic nature of the unique Oxbridge applications process.
Contrary to what some tabloid newspapers claim, the current system allows for students from a variety of backgrounds to be considered fairly on their individual merit. Unlike with the vast majority of universities, a candidate’s grades and personal statement are not the only ways to impress the admissions tutors. The interviews are an essential part of the process, and they alone require months of preparation. Although Oxford and Cambridge are similar, they are not the same, and so one must prepare accordingly. As an alumnus of the University of Cambridge and a person who now works in education, I can vouch for the amount of time and effort that goes into making an application of the highest quality to one of these historic institutions (not to mention the other universities a student will be applying to). Trying to prepare in the same way for both universities in the same year, along with balancing one’s A levels and extra-curricular commitments, would be an almost impossible feat.
To disrupt the very carefully designed balance of this system would do prospective Oxbridge students more harm than good in the long run.
OxbridgeSciences and OxbridgeHumanities
Slow food for thought
Gary Thomas (“Have to admit it’s getting better, a little better all the time”, 15 August), as befits a professor of education, believes that with reference to intelligence “our abilities are getting better all the time” and he cites the “Flynn effect” in support of this assertion. However, if we accept that a fast reaction time is a component of high intelligence, then things become a bit more complicated.
In a recent journal article (“Were the Victorians cleverer than us?”, Intelligence), Michael A. Woodley, Jan te Nijenhuis and Raegan Murphy demonstrate in a scrupulous meta-analysis of objectively measured reaction time data, that on average we are in fact slowing down and people in the Victorian area were faster than we are. So, as reaction time does indeed correlate with g, the general factor of intelligence, it looks as though Flynn’s view of a never-ending increase in intelligence may be a comforting illusion.
R. E. Rawles
UCL honorary research fellow in psychology
Tabulating the place of UK universities in terms of their contribution to industry (“Korean kudos (UK also-rans)”, 15 August) presents only a partial view of the external role of the university sector and its place in national life.
It would also be worth measuring the contribution that UK universities make to charitable and not-for-profit organisations, in addition to those whose funding base is limited and which depend not only on institutional support but also the time that so many academics (both in post and retired) provide freely by sitting on committees, boards of trustees and working parties.
It would be worth carrying out a supplementary comparative exercise to see how much pro bono work is carried out by universities in countries such as South Korea and Singapore.
And perhaps the social as well as the economic benefits of such output at world level could also be quantified.
Emeritus professor, Gresham College
I would like to thank John Gilbert (Letters, 15 August) for his kind words about my book On Gaia (reviewed by Jon Turney, 8 August). However, I would like to clarify that I do not make a “category error”. Gilbert suggests that I conflate Gaia theory, which he uses as the name for a field of scientific enquiry, with the Gaia hypothesis, which is the proposal that Earth’s environment has been moulded by life to help to keep it comfortable and stable for life over Earth’s long history.
The field of scientific enquiry referred to by Gilbert does indeed exist, known to most as Earth system science. In my book, I scrutinise the Gaia hypothesis only. I do not refer to Gaia theory at all (the term never appears, except in quotations from other works). My book makes no claims to evaluate the field of Earth system science, although hopefully it advances our understanding in this area.
Professor of Earth system science
University of Southampton
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