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The Issue: What shall we tell the Students?

Originally Published 12 June 2002
by Saul Jacka
Finally it's official: "On talking to university admission tutors around the country, it's clear that skills on entry are much lower than they were" - Jeremy Paxman (Start the Week, Radio 4, 11/3/02). If such an authority admits it then, despite all the official denials and claims of maintained or improving standards, it must be true.

Stimulated by the advent of the Internet, a view has grown up over the past few years that it's no longer necessary actually to know anything; that the key skill is the ability to manipulate ideas and concepts. The recipe for perfection is then to combine this skill with a working knowledge of how to use reference sources of which the quintessential example is the Internet. Over the same period, the Department for Education and Skills has focused on the idea of transferable skills, such as word-processing.

Now the DfES tells us that the nation is experiencing an acute skills-shortage, despite its having directed education towards skills-acquisition for the past five years. The Electronic Engineering Department at York recently announced that while a Maths test sat on entry produced an average mark of 76% twenty years ago, the average mark on the selfsame test now is 38%.

Through the desert of Irrelevant Education, the caravansaray of Social Utility treks towards the promised land of Skilled Workforce and, like a mirage, the land disappears. How does this disjunction between purpose and outcome arise? The following examples may go some way towards explaining it. A professor at York tells us "while Maths students no longer know any Geometry on entry, they know much more computing" (Guardian Education website). The professor happily ignores the fact that any study of Geometry introduces the central idea of rigorous proof whereas computing (as taught at school) is entirely irrelevant to Mathematics. The point is that "- a cook is not a man who first has the vision of a pie and then tries to make it; he is a man skilled in cookery, and both his projects and his achievements spring from his skill" (Michael Oakeshott, "The Idea of a University" in The Voice of Liberal Learning, ed. Timothy Fuller, Yale 1989. Training in skills is not done in vacuo, but rather is best undertaken tacitly in the course of some other enterprise. We hone our skill in thinking by thinking about something, even if that something is the concept of nothing.

As teachers, our problem is to introduce students, who've been exposed to little else but vapid skills training, to an activity that we take for granted - that of learning. By learning, I do not mean here the memorisation of facts, but rather a determined participation in the adventures of intellectual enquiry.

So, the issue is to cope with the fact that most university entrants now have only the faintest clue as to what they're letting themselves in for. Many assume that university is merely a continuation of school by other means; a place where we, the teachers, are (over-) paid to insert facts and techniques into their, the customers' heads; in short, to provide them with their degree certificates.

The news is not all bad, however. Our students are no less intelligent than they were, nor are their innate abilities any less, it is merely that they are less well trained. I recently started a lecture course to 280 first year Maths students by asking them whether in an ideal world, they'd rather just be given 100% and allowed to skip the course. Only one person answered yes. So, a sense of intellectual fair play still holds sway, and I believe the other key attitudes are still there (if less well-developed).

Some mechanisms for coping with the skills gap have been proposed: four-year degrees, reduced syllabuses, increased optionality, more continuous assessment and modularisation. All of these ignore the fundamental problem. The problem is the unhealthy discordance that has arisen between our activities and what we (allow ourselves to) ask of our students. I believe that this deep tension can only be resolved by information, familiarisation and a sense of membership. We have to provide our students with both precise and honest information about what we do and with familiarisation in how we do it and we have to inculcate in them a sense of membership in the enterprise.

So, what shall we tell the students? My suggestion is: "[A human] inhabits a wholly human world, "because everything in it is known to him by what it means to him. A human being is condemned to be a learner because meanings have to be learned" (Michael Oakeshott, "A Place of Learning", ibid.). Welcome to the club.

If you would like to express your opinion in response to Saul Jacka's views, please write to: Varsha Trivedi, Communications Office, Senate House, ext 22876, email