Tutors in despair at illiterate freshers

February 10, 2006

Undergraduates are entering university less numerate, literate and knowledgeable than ever before, according to the most comprehensive study undertaken of how university admissions staff view the latest intakes of students.

Admissions tutors bemoaned new students' lack of independent thought, "fear of numbers" and expectations to be "told the answers" in a survey of staff from 16 Oxbridge, Russell Group and post-1992 institutions.

The report, leaked to The Times Higher , reveals that lecturers are forced to postpone courses to the second year of undergraduate degrees to make time for remedial teaching and to develop students' independent learning skills.

Many of the 250 university staff questioned lamented an "overemphasis" on exam success and league tables in the education system for 14 to 19-year-olds, which they say leads to students starting university suffering from "assessment burnout" and expecting to be spoon-fed.

New students, they say, increasingly struggle to cope with the independent and self-directed style of learning expected by higher education tutors.

They say that students are increasingly weak at reading critically, constructing arguments and communicating ideas in writing and have poor grammar skills compared with undergraduates of ten years ago.

Lecturers say that A levels often either cover too much of a subject in too little detail or focus on certain topics and fail to provide adequate knowledge of core ideas.

Geoff Hayward, lecturer in Oxford University's educational studies department, which carried out the survey with the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, said: "Negative comments are not indicative of higher education tutors and admissions staff whingeing or harking back to some golden age, but represent genuine concerns about young people and their capacity to benefit from higher education."

He said the reduced "teachability" of new undergraduates placed the efficiency of the UK higher education sector at risk.

David Law, chair of the Admissions Practitioners' Group of the Academic Registrars' Council and academic registrar at Warwick University, said the report confirmed the concerns often aired by admissions staff.

He said: "We are concerned about the interface between pre-university education and undergraduate study. We are all seeing the need to be very careful with our admissions. Universities also need to review their curricula to adapt their courses to new students, though."

jessica.shepherd@thes.co.uk

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