'Immature' students without basic English skills enrage Uclan staff

March 30, 2007

Staff at the University of Central Lancashire have delivered a damning indictment of the quality of their own students in a no-holds-barred internal discussion leaked to The Times Higher , writes Phil Baty.

An online forum set up by managers at the university's Lancashire Business School - to allow staff to debate the school's future strategic direction - has become a site on which staff have vented their frustration and anger about the difficulties of teaching students with poor basic skills.

The staff bemoan students who are "immature" and who cannot "spell and punctuate properly". International students with poor English language skills have led to a "plague of plagiarism", and their presence is "downgrading" the experience of home students as lecturers have to give basic English lessons, they said.

Among a series of comments seen by The Times Higher , one member of staff told the forum: "And what are we doing it for anyway? The good of the students? We all know that this process is to maintain a certain level of income for the university so that we may have jobs in the future.

"It's not really about the wellbeing of the students... Get them wanting to be involved with us in the learning process rather than them being customers and us suppliers."

The forum, "LBS strategy blog", was opened for comments last month (and closed on March 30) to allow staff to discuss the direction of their faculty ahead of a new strategy document that was due to be published in May.

Comments on the forum raised concerns not only about the lack of collegiality in the school but also focused on teaching issues, particularly those relating to overseas students.

One member of staff said: "It is a stone-cold fact that some international students do not have sufficient command of English... This gives rise to staff teaching English as well as their subject, poor communication with the students, low standards on assessed work and a plague of plagiarism."

The writer said that the problem arose from the need to fill places with lucrative full-fee-paying students. "It's recruitment. Bums on seats? Pack 'em in and give them remedial support. There is no alternative? There has to be because this isn't credibly sustainable."

Another said that the learning experience for home students was "downgraded" because of the large number of international students. One said that poor English "adversely affects" the learning experience for the entire class.

Several members of staff posted suggestions that there should be compulsory English classes for all students - home students included.

"A focus on written communication skills is something (that is) desperately needed. There has been a real decline in students' ability to spell and punctuate correctly," one said.

Another replied that students, "as consumers, won't wear it, even though we all know there are many who need extra help.

"We give them chance after chance because we don't want to lose them... we need to recruit better students, not simply more."

One lecturer, from the journalism department, made the comment: "I didn't like the use of this weasel word 'customers' (to describe students)I yes, students pay a heck of a lot of money, but this shouldn't guarantee that they purchase a degree unless they also put in the matching commitment."

One lecturer added: "Staff are not cynical. They are making a rational and understandable response to their experiences. Don't ignore them as cynics and naysayers."

A spokesman for the university said that the quotes from the bulletin board failed to paint a "fully rounded" picture of provision at Uclan.

He said that international students at the university meet widely respected minimum standards of English-language proficiency that are recognised by the Foreign Office.

"Uclan repudiates any negative suggestions about its culture or the physical fabric. The consensus of staff, students and those who visit the university is that it is a successful and modern institution where learning is prized."

David Hamblin, dean of the business school, said: "As a modern and energetic university, we encourage such open exchange of views.

"The excerpts (cited) do not reflect the positive and constructive tenor of the discussions. Most opinions on the site are well informed and up to date. However, there are some that recognise less well the changes on which the faculty has already embarked to address the selected concerns, and our task will be to ensure that all staff are aware of these developments."

Angela Murphy, the pro vice-chancellor, pointed out that Uclan won the 2006 Times Higher Award for Outstanding Support for Overseas Students - for its work in preparing and supporting its international students before and during their visits to learn in the UK.

BETTER STUDENTS, NOT MORE

* 'It is a stone-cold fact that some international students do not have sufficient command of English... This gives rise to staff teaching English as well as their subject, poor communication with the students, low standards on assessed work and a plague of plagiarism'

* 'I didn't like the use of this weasel word "customers" [to describe students]... Students pay a heck of a lot of money, but this shouldn't guarantee that they purchase a degree unless they also put in the matching commitment'

* 'A focus on written communication skills is something [that is] desperately needed. There has been a real decline in students' ability to spell and punctuate correctly'

* 'We give them chance after chance because we don't want to lose them... we need to recruit better students, not simply more'

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