POPULAR claims that graduates can no longer spell or present a coherent argument have some foundation, according to new research that has uncovered a decline in literacy among students, particularly in newer universities.
Project leader Cordelia Bryan, of the department of English studies at Anglia Polytechnic University, said that old universities in her sample generally did not perceive the problem of language skills to be growing. Although they reported problems with students' spelling and grammar, they were resistant to the formal assessment of communication skills.
In contrast, newer universities acknowledged growing difficulties and were keen to try innovative teaching methods to raise standards.
The three-year Speak-Write project, funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, has collected the views of academics from six English departments about the literacy of their students.
There was an even split between old universities - York, Leeds and Nottingham - and new universities - Oxford Brookes, Sheffield Hallam and Middlesex. Five of the departments were rated excellent by HEFCE assessors.
The views of teachers in schools, sixth-form and further education colleges were also sought and these revealed a decline in the accuracy of written work, deficiencies in spelling, sentence structure and paragraphing.
There was no evidence in either new or old universities that students with English language A level were any better at language skills than other students.
Many respondents said the shift to a screen culture had reduced the inclination and time for reading. Word processing software had also affected writing skills.
Social factors, such as regional high unemployment and neglect of the local environment, had contributed to a feeling that education was pointless and not relevant to society, the research found.
Declining standards of writing among university students were attributed to a wider range of ability, more marked in the new universities. Students were also working for money, which reduced the amount of study time available.
Ms Bryan said that old universities generally agreed that good students remained good. If there was a wider range of competence, this was at the margins and did not require institutional changes. While some old universities had lowered their A level requirements from three As to two As and a B, this had in effect changed nothing.
But Ms Bryan noted that, when pressed, most staff from the old universities admitted there were more problems than they initially indicated with spelling, grammar and syntactical features, as well as rhetorical skills such as making and presenting an argument.
Respondents in the secondary and FE sector commented on the general decline in oral skills. This was primarily attributed to lack of time for classroom discussions.
Teachers admitted that they now reluctantly employ methods to get the greatest number of students to pass exams. This was often achieved by providing numerous handouts and practising exam questions.
In the three new universities and one old university it was reported that students did not expect to have to speak much, and in one institution staff said students did not have to listen analytically and constructively either.
Ms Bryan said the most frequent complaint was that the same mistakes were being repeated, suggesting students ignored feedback. One staff member said that as many as 30 per cent of students had not bothered to collect their marked end-of-semester essays.
"If we are serious about raising the standards of oral and written accuracy we may need to insist that students attain a minimum level in order to pass core modules," Ms Bryan said.
The project recommended a number of techniques to raise standards.
These included awarding reasonable percentages of overall marks for oral contributions; employing a professional copy editor to blitz students' first two or three pieces of work - a trial by fire approach that has been found to hugely improve the quality of written work in a short time.
EXAMPLES OF COMMON MISTAKES STUDENTS MAKE
Common mistakes identified in the Anglia Polytechnic survey:
misuse of apostrophes
confusion about when to use who and and whom
semi-colons appear in strange places
liberal use of inappropriate exclamation marks
students rarely know when to use the comma
frequent misspelling of words such as relevant, desperate, business, sentence
general decline in accuracy and attention to detail
misuse of paragraphs
sentences generally too long and poorly punctuated