You cannot make them think

August 30, 2002

All should have the option of university but only the really able should expect to collect a full degree, argues Hugh Fletcher.

"Some of the students shouldn't be in higher education." So wrote Habeshaw, Gibbs and Habeshaw in their 1991 book, Problems with Large Classes . That was in the good old days of relatively small classes. Some university classes are now mixed ability and should really be streamed.

Recent research published in the Journal of Biological Education shows that the average mark in one university first-year module fell from 56 per cent in 1989 to 39 per cent in 1996, as class size grew from 68 to 151. The marks of top students were unchanged, up to 92 per cent, but the peak sagged like a beer gut to the base of the graph. What caused this decline?

The source for the increase in student numbers must have been those who would not have secured a university place when entrance was more restricted. Choice, opportunity or ability would have prevented them from qualifying for university in the 1970s or 1980s.

My experience suggests that many students now see higher education as another tedious hurdle on the track to employability. Meanwhile, the education system has tooled up to get inept or disinterested students through exams. Many of these students appear to lack conceptual ability, hence confuse cause and effect. They memorise vast tracts and reproduce them in exams without answering the questions. First-year undergraduates express disappointment that keywords gain marks only when they are relevant and in the right order - which says something about A levels.

If word association is enough to achieve a GCSE, then learning sentences, even whole essay answers to spotted questions can get a degree of sorts. To raise exam marks, use "describe", and "list" in questions, to lower them use "discuss" and "explain".

A persistent complaint from markers is that students just repeat pages of semi-relevant information, with little attempt to answer the specific question. The only skill gained by some students is in passing exams: they get no added value from five years of post-GCSE education.

Universities routinely put on courses to give students "skills" and offer other support. Disheartened colleagues observe that the more support they give students, the less some do to help themselves. Many fail by not handing in work or by not attending. Some universities tolerate this to reduce fail rates.

Presumably these students will continue to need a high level of support in future employment. Like horses to water, you can admit students to university but you cannot make them think.

A recent MORI poll found that 68 per cent of 11 to 16-year-olds expect to go to university. This is reasonable, because A levels are only 40 per cent accurate at predicting differences between students' future marks. Some with good A levels may struggle at degree level, while those with a C or D may get a first. The best solution is to offer regular exits without stigma. If we have continental-style high participation, we should have continental-style loss rates.

No country seems to have more than a 30 per cent success rate in higher education. I suggest we should admit everyone within reason, but instead of making the first year more like A levels to retain students, we should make it a test of independent, self-motivated learning and conceptual ability. Let those without aptitude collect a diploma, not become failures. The more students who change stream together, the less the perception of personal failure.

But if league tables and funding allocation depend on completion rates and the proportion of best-degree classification, then universities will deliver both. This seems to be what the government desires. Our masters are falling into the trap of self-delusion that plagues socialists with unchallenged power - that grand plans equal real results. The notion of maintaining bottom-end standards with greater participation and high completion is as illusory as many of Stalin's Russian harvests.

Hugh Fletcher is lecturer in genetics and adviser on studies for biology at Queen's University, Belfast.

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