British Colleges Seek Quantity and Quality ; despite Record Enrollment, Universities Lack Funds and Struggle with Unprepared Students

Article excerpt

Pity the poor British professor.

Once upon a time in the halcyon 1960s, his students were a privileged few, an academic elite drawn from the top 4 percent of the population. New university arrivals were literate and numerate; crimes against grammar were the exception rather than the rule.

But according to a new comprehensive survey of British university faculty and staff, all that has changed.

"They [incoming freshmen] don't know how to write essays - they just assemble bits from the Internet," commented a disgruntled Oxford tutor. "Even the cream of candidates ... do not necessarily know how to use an apostrophe," added another.

The decline in student competence parallels a dramatic increase in British university and college enrollment over the past decade, spurred in recent years by Prime Minister Tony Blair's push to get half of all young Britons a university degree.

But as professors and business owners alike decry the quality of university students and graduates, more than a few observers are questioning the wisdom of packing ivory towers with the masses. And students themselves may begin to question whether higher education is overvalued, with tuition rates set to rise steeply next fall.

British universities and colleges are teeming with almost 2.5 million young adults, a 12-fold increase of1960s numbers, and up almost 50 percent over the past decade alone. But a report published last month for the Association of Graduate Recruiters found that almost half of the top 200employers of university graduateswere unhappy with the caliber of candidates. And the recent survey, conducted by Oxford University and Universities & Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), listed a catalog of complaints about freshmen which had led in some cases to year-long courses being deferred by a year.

"You are getting students going to higher education now who wouldn't have done so 20 years ago, and in some ways that's a good thing, as it widens opportunity," says Geoff Hayward, lecturer at Oxford University's educational studies department. But there were, he adds, "genuine concerns about young people and their capacity to benefit from higher education."

Part of the problem, Mr. Hayward says, lies in the way teenagers are taught in school, prepped assiduously for exams at the expense of broader understanding. And despite the students' academic failings, the Oxford/UCAS survey did find they were more tech-savvy and better at oral communication than their predecessors.

Nevertheless, concerns about the state of Britain's university system are deepening this year as its funding faces one of its biggest shake-ups in decades. Following the lead of America, Australia, and New Zealand among others, universities will introduce a new annual 3,000 ($5,200) tuition fee for students next year - nearly triple the current fee.

The charge, brought in by the government to drum up cash for a perennially underfunded sector, is expected to saddle graduates with debts of at least 12,000 ($21,000), according to the National Union of Students (NUS), making some think twice about whether to study. …