Students today can't write, spell or count

February 10, 2006

Admissions tutors' report cards for today's undergraduates might well read: "Marks are slipping, must do better."

That, at least, is the conclusion of the 250 university admissions staff quizzed as part of the most comprehensive UK study on the academic standards of students.

The report, by academics at Oxford University's educational studies department and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, warns today's students that they are quickly falling behind their peers of ten years ago.

Standards in modern foreign languages, history, maths and single science courses were of particular concern, while all students were criticised for the decline in literacy and numeracy standards.

Tutors said presentation and computer skills had improved but students lacked the ability to construct and appraise arguments.

Many saw the admissions process as flawed, complaining that predicted grades were unreliable, that private schools could "play the system" and that personal statements could be written by parents and edited by teachers. For these reasons, admissions tests were likely to gain in popularity.

jessica.shepherd@thes.co.uk

WHAT ADMISSIONS TUTORS SAY

* On literacy, numeracy and falling standards:

"Remedial maths courses are on offer and the department has employed a learning officer to help with 'how to learn'."

"No civil engineering is done in the first semester and second-year material has now moved to the third year."

"They cut and paste essays from the web. Reading books is a skill that has been lost."

* From a tutor at a "selecting" university: "I was able to skim the cream of candidates, but even they do not necessarily know how to use an apostrophe."

* From physics admissions tutors: "They can't even write in sentences.

Their spelling is appalling. They can't be understood... they graduate with a 2:1 but they still can't spell or write English."

* From a biology admissions tutor: "Elementary maths is missing. They can't put decent sentences together."

"Students are scared stiff of numbers."

* On modular A levels and exams:

"The only thing students are interested in is getting a mark in the short term. The modular system means they forget what they've learnt."

"Students arrive at a seminar with an empty pad, waiting for the solutions simply to be communicated to them."

* On foreign languages and science: "Languages seem to be becoming the preserve of those in the independent sector."

"In science, students have fewer practical skills now than previously."

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