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Classic cases

Hazel Hutchison is wary of "alarmist" media reports about the running down of students' abilities and points to the achievements of those leaving university.

"The quality of the work of some of the fourth-year students is really impressive - the graduates coming out today are every bit as good as the graduates of 15 years ago," said Dr Hutchison, a lecturer in English at Aberdeen University.

Nevertheless, she has written a good-writing guide for students, something she feels would not have been necessary a decade ago. Yet she refuses to single out schools. "There's less knowledge of grammar and spelling in society as a whole - it's hard to pin the blame anywhere."

Dr Hutchison also finds that few students understand what an essay involves. Advanced Higher's emphasis on a lengthy dissertation, however, leaves pupils better equipped for academic rigour, while students who have read more good literature tend to have fewer problems with essays.

The declining popularity of poetry is reflected in first-year classes, where Dr Hutchison finds students from all backgrounds relatively unfamiliar with the metre, rhyme and form of classic verse - so much so that four weeks are spent on poetry shortly after students arrive at university.

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