A-level grades and pass rates keep getting better but the stories persist of less able undergraduates struggling with the 'nuts and bolts' of maths and English. Paul Hill looks for the answer to an educational conundrum
A marked decline in the numeracy and literacy of undergraduates has been revealed by aptitude tests and "catch-up" courses for first-year students at universities across the UK, The Times Higher has learnt.
Evidence from one university's testing system suggested that students from the 2001 intake with a grade B in mathematics A level showed "slightly lower levels" of competence in the subject's key skills than their predecessors who failed the A level in 1991.
Senior English tutors, meanwhile, said that undergraduates lacked the "nuts and bolts of intellectual communication" - often misusing commas and apostrophes and often botching spelling.
In a literacy test set by one Cambridge University college this academic year, some applicants struggled to spot basic errors in a prepared text of solecisms.
Academics in the arts and sciences stressed that neither students nor secondary school teachers were at fault, questioning instead changes to the curriculum and examination methods at GCSE, AS and A level.
Concerns about a decline in undergraduates' abilities follow the Tomlinson report on exam reform in 14 to 19-year-old education and the inquiry into mathematics teaching headed by Adrian Smith, principal of Queen Mary, University of London.
Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools, told MPs earlier this month that undergraduates were "almost brought down" by the prospect of writing an extended undergraduate essay, having been practically "spoon-fed" at GCSE and A level.
In his evidence to the education and skills select committee, he said: "I did meet one undergraduate who had a string of A levels and had been accepted at a very prestigious university in London to do a degree in mathematics who left after one term because he had been asked to write something about a mathematics topic, and he simply couldn't cope with it."
Duncan Lawson, Coventry University professor and chairman of the Heads of Departments of Mathematical Sciences, said his research suggested that A levels did not produce the "same degree of competency" in the essential maths skills required by undergraduates as they once did.
Coventry has set the same 50-question multiple-choice maths test for incoming undergraduates since 1991 as a way of identifying the support that students will need in the early stages of their course.
Professor Lawson explained that his research focused on changes in the performance of incoming undergraduates with either a grade D or E at maths A level: those students seen as "at risk" or in need of extra support.
The average test score of students with a grade D at A level in 1991 was 37.3 out of 50; by 2001, the average had fallen to 29.1. Meanwhile, the average score for a student with a grade E at A level in 1991 was 35.6, compared with the 2001 cohort who scored an average of 28.4.
Professor Lawson also found that students in 2001 with a grade B at maths A level who sat the Coventry test showed "slightly lower levels of competency in these basic skills" than undergraduates ten years earlier with a grade N (fail) at A level.
Professor Lawson said: "Universities in the short term are going to do a significant amount of work - bridging work or support work - to get students into a position to fully benefit from the studies they are going to undertake. I think that's going to be a feature of the higher education horizon for several years to come while things change in schools."
Crucially, concerns about a decline in undergraduate numeracy are not confined to university maths departments.
Adrian Jackson, head of computing and mathematical sciences at the University of Huddersfield, warned that without government action to support maths "there is a severe danger that courses will be forced to close".
"The loss of interest in engineering over the years means that we no longer produce the number of graduate engineers that we need - or would have needed if the manufacturing base of the country had not reduced," Dr Jackson said.
"We have allowed mathematics education to decline, and we are now in danger of allowing the same thing to happen to computing and our information-based economy."
Dr Jackson added: "The sort of things students struggle with now - which were common knowledge, at least on science courses, ten or 20 years ago - are simple algebraic manipulation and simple arithmetic.
"The major problem is less concrete. Students have less appetite for abstraction, generalisation and reasoning. These skills are often learnt through mathematics and are applicable in computing and programming.
"Without them, the tasks of, for example, learning to program and solve problems are much harder. I believe that these skills can be taught independently of mathematics, but somehow this is failing to happen before students arrive at university. At this stage, it is becoming too late to teach both the skills and the disciplines in which they are to be applied."
John Batchelor, a professor at Newcastle University's School of English and chairman of the higher education committee of the English Association, said that there were "dozens of habitual solecisms that we have to iron out at university level and that should certainly have been cleaned up at school".
Professor Batchelor said: "I've been teaching in universities for 35 years, and 14 of those were as a fellow at New College, Oxford, where we were getting stringently selected students, so the quality was very high.
"Even so, we had students at Oxford who could not spell. But my personal view of the quality of students that we are getting now - and I must emphasise that it is my personal view - is that there is something of a drop in the quality in their ability to write good English when they come to university.
"To some degree, this is reflected in the fact that the School of English at Newcastle has introduced what I think is a very good course in writing skills, which is taught in the first semester of the first year by senior people.
"We get students to write passages, comment in detail on what they've written and show their work to one another.
"We also get them to read, understand and internalise a published piece of critical work and to break it down and think about its qualities.
"So the course is about writing both at the level of intellectual communication and at the level of the nuts and bolts of writing.
"Often it is the nuts and bolts that they [students] really need: the right use of the colon and semicolon, the right use of the apostrophe - distinguishing between 'it's' and 'its', and so on."
Professor Batchelor added: "Bad habits are ingrained from an early age, and it takes them a long time to unlearn them.
"In a way, it is a waste of teaching time for us and a waste at school level as well if these skills are not imparted and received."
Nicolette Zeeman, admissions tutor at King's College, Cambridge, said that applicants this year faced a literacy test: a doctored text of spelling and grammar errors.
The results, Dr Zeeman said, were "revealing", with some applicants adding mistakes of their own.
Dr Zeeman said that the virtues of the GCSE and A-level systems - such as giving students enhanced data-manipulation skills and understanding of sources in the arts - appeared to be at the expense of traditional skills.
"You can have students who are clearly very able, who are thinking interesting thoughts, putting together interesting material and who are reading ambitious texts, but who can't express themselves," Dr Zeeman said.
"It is also quite difficult to convince them of the sense that it is important, because they haven't come through a system that has taught them that it is also the way you say things that allows you to fine-tune and nuance what you are saying."
Andrew Motion, Poet laureate: Give students a basic grounding in grammar, the bible and the classics and 'stop the rot' in literacy
Universities can help to "stop the rot" in literacy by assisting students with grammar and widening English courses to give a better grounding in the Bible and the classics, according to the poet laureate.
Andrew Motion is teaching first-year undergraduates, at Royal Holloway, University of London, for the first time since lecturing at Hull University in the 1970s. He told The Times Higher that he was struck by a "decline in the basics".
Students were "extremely bright and well motivated", he said, but lacked a basic grounding in literacy.
Professor Motion said he was also concerned by the limited range of students' reading and suggested that study of texts at GCSE, AS and A level had become "too tightly boxed".
"There has been a noticeable decay in the basic things that [Mike] Tomlinson is worried about," he said, "particularly the poor old apostrophe, which doesn't know where it lives anymore. Everybody has a sense that it belongs somewhere, and they scatter it across pages in an almost experimental way."
Professor Motion added: "I think that for a lot of bright students their experience of reading has been very tightly boxed by the way they have been able to study at GCSE, AS and A level."
Students may know much about the authors of their set texts but little about their historical and social background or their literary context, he said.
"This concerns me much more because it seems to suggest something more problematic about the way that social history and literary history are not connecting in a general way, and in a narrow way the way in which you might study writer X, Y or Z but know little about the rest of the alphabet. If I were in a position to start thinking again about the core knowledges that people should gather as they come through the education system, I would want to address that."
He said students needed help to acquire a "core knowledge" of "the Bible, other religious texts that inform subsequent literatures and the Greek and Roman stories".
"The way to make life easier is to do two things: one is to run bridging courses [in literacy skills] and accept that it's a necessity; the other is to think differently about activities around students in their earlier lives in the academy.
"Why not diversify English studies a little to create the opportunity for students to know more about myths and the great core things that run through everyone's experience of reading?"
Professor Motion added: "Big changes in educational process take a lot of time, but this is a rather urgent matter. It is not inconceivable to think that courses might be devised in the short term that might stop the rot."
Try the Coventry test
Do you have the basic maths skills to pass muster at university?
The following questions are culled from Coventry University'sdiagnostic test, which has been puzzling freshers in their first week since 1991.
1: Solve x(x+1) = 6
2: What are the conditions for a local minimum?
3: Evaluate 2x -½ when x = ¼
4: Which has a factor of x+1: a) x2-x-2 and/or b) x2+x-2?
The number of undergraduates with a grade D in maths A level giving the correct answer to those four questions in 2001 was down by more than one-third compared with 1991. However, they fared better with these two:
5: What is the indefinite integral of x2 + 1/x2?
6: What is the formula for cos x in a right-angled triangle?
Answering this question correctly troubled the 2001 intake with a grade E at A level more than their counterparts in 1991:
7: Calculate the value of 25 ½ + 2 /3?
1: x =2 or - 3
2: dy/dx=0 and d2y/dx2>0
6: adjacent / hypotenuse