Questions about the literacy of immigrant students in New Zealand have spread to students who have come through the country's school system.
Albert Brownlie, vice chancellor of Canterbury University, said the native students were a greater concern than immigrants and their children.
The literacy issue has gained wide publicity in New Zealand following a review of Canterbury University's English department which highlighted a significant number of students, undergraduate and postgraduates, enrolled in a writing skills course or receiving individual help.
"At least 15 per cent of the university's enrolments are in need of some remedial work or guidance with their written work; such as composing sentences, writing essays and punctuation," Professor Brownlie said.
"It's a deplorable situation to find students might be failing or not doing as well as they could because of an incapacity to express themselves in writing."
He said not only should a 50 per cent pass in the English bursary exam be compulsory for entrance to university, but the current requirements of three C passes should be replaced by a requirement to gain 200 marks over four subjects.
Alistair Fox, a language centre director and professor of English at Otago University, a long-time campaigner for more emphasis on English language teaching, agreed the problem of general illiteracy was "all pervasive".
"Even in a subject like English, a large number of students are not properly literate," he said. The problems were most obvious in essays. Students made grammatical mistakes, had no notion of how to structure a sentence and made gross errors in punctuation.
Professor Fox would also like to see English made a compulsory subject for the university entrance exam.
However, there was also a need to look at the way English was taught in schools. He said: "You can't teach literacy unless you can teach the grammar of English."
He added that English language had not been taught adequately in schools in New Zealand for 20 years. He said Otago now offered a first-year linguistics paper which covered the structure of the language, and the new English curriculum in schools would put more emphasis on teaching English as a language. However, it would be five years before there was "a crop of teachers that can teach language".
Lockwood Smith, the education minister, said he was "not surprised, but deeply concerned" to hear of the extent of the problem.
Since the 1960s, there had been a movement from the teaching of the structure of language and grammar to having children write creatively. He was confident the new English curriculum would rectify the situation.