Students lack basic skills to tackle university study

May 2, 2003

Students ain't what they used to be - and that's official. A survey of UK deans of science shows that an overwhelming majority believe the elementary knowledge and mathematical and practical skills of freshers today are worse than those of their peers ten years ago.

The worst situation was in the physical sciences, where 70 per cent of deans reported that less than half of new students had the appropriate or necessary skills.

Overall, just under half the students on 58 per cent of courses lacked the necessary mathematical skills; just under half of students on 47 per cent of courses lacked the necessary practical skills; and under half the students on 34 per cent of courses lacked the elementary knowledge appropriate for their studies.

Save British Science, the lobby group set up by concerned scientists during the funding cuts of the 1980s, carried out the survey following mounting anecdotal evidence suggesting a problem.

Peter Cotgreave, director of SBS, said: "The results are a cause for concern in that we specifically asked about 'necessary' and 'appropriate'

levels of skills, not some idealised perfection."

He said widening participation meant more students were admitted without the traditional three As at A level, but institutions had to tackle the fact that they lacked the skills needed for university study.

Without a radical improvement in schools, Dr Cotgreave warned "universities are going to have to change the provision of courses to take account of the actual nature of their intake rather than what they want, or standards are going to fall".

One dean commented: "The skill base worries me less than the indifference to knowledge and the cynical 'do we need to know this for the exam?' mentality."

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