Dumbed down but joining up;Leading Article

27th August 1999 at 01:00
THE DEBATE about "dumbing down" of higher education at the Edinburgh Book Festival inevitably attempted to cover too much ground, finding cause for grouses and cynicism in almost every aspect of university life. The pre-debate publicity was about the academic shortcomings of today's students but the speakers identified problems from lack of resources to absurdities in the research assessment exercise.

Curiously, despite the attention to undergraduates' ineptitude with apostrophes and clarity of expression, for once schools were not blamed. There was general acceptance that widening access to universities not only changes their nature (the contrast in facilities between Oxbridge and the newest parts of the system was frequently referred to) but also means that skills lecturers could once be confident of in their students are no longer necessarily there. But it also seemed to be accepted that universities had to remedy deficiencies rather than simply blame teachers, not least because for a growing number of undergraduates schooldays are long past.

Shaky grammar and infelicities of expression are easy to point to. But an Edinburgh University biochemist in the audience suggested that far more serious were gaps in understanding of basic concepts, for example in mathematics and chemistry among his students. You can make incursions into English literature even if you can't distinguish "its" from "it's", but fundamental lack of grasp brings progress in the sciences to a stop.

Where the speakers disagreed was on relationships - between pursuit of knowledge and pursuit of vocation, and between achievement and resources, or at least on whether a growing proportion of funding had to come from students themselves. Fortunately in Scotland for the Cubie committee only the last of these conundrums falls to it.

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