May 13, 2005

University teaching seems to become ever more demanding as time goes on. Resources are tight while changes in the student profile keep up the pressure on academics. Students, too, want results for their investment in the shape of a full educational experience and a qualification that will open up a rewarding career path, whether in terms of job satisfaction or simply cash in the bank.

Universities properly expect their staff to meet these demands. Good managements are attuned to these long-term trends while the Higher Education Funding Council for England allocates the bulk of its resources for widening participation to initiatives aimed at reducing the number of students who drop out of their studies. Of the £282 million set aside for widening participation in 2005-06, almost £215 million is allocated to improving retention. As it gets into its stride, the Higher Education Academy will focus ever more attention on the student experience. But it is still often left to the individual lecturer to carve out the time and to identify what needs to be done. This is particularly prevalent in such areas as communication skills, where the ability deficit is glaringly apparent.

Poor grammar, unreliable spelling and impaired critical thinking escalate from minor irritations into serious barriers to degree-level education when they are as widespread as writers in this supplement suggest. But how realistic is it to seek to instil skills that, in theory, should have been acquired at school? How should communications skills be taught? In a full academic programme, where should the priorities lie?

And that is only home students. The experience of the past few years has identified a whole batch of issues connected with the presence of large numbers of international students from widely differing cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

Fortunately, assistance is available to help students help themselves. There is a wealth of knowledge and direct experience among higher education lecturers and writers, many of whom have written practical guides that may help academics to reconcile their primary role in enhancing students’ knowledge with reinforcement of the core skills students need to demonstrate that they have benefited from the experience.

Correct grammar and spelling may be the basic building blocks of a rounded university education, but familiarity with global issues is likely to be as essential a component of the undergraduate experience. A project funded by the Department for International Development has been gauging the extent of “global perspectives” in a sample of university courses with the aim of identifying examples of good practice for others to follow. For tomorrow’s students, there will be a whole world out there.

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