Posted tagged ‘dumbing down’

Not a real university programme?

September 14, 2009

In the late 1990s a number of commentators got all hot and bothered about the decision by Thames Valley University in England to introduce a degree course on ‘kite flying’. According to some, this proved that the former Polytechnic of West London should never have become a university; and there were even some who insinuated that a Vice-Chancellor with an earring and a ponytail (which is what Mike Fitzgerald, then the Head of the university, sported) could not lead a reputable institution. In fact, not very long afterwards, the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency produced a damning report on the university, as a result of which Mike Fitzgerald stepped down and a new emergency management team was brought in.

Now the Sunday Times newspaper has pointed out that a number of UK universities run programmes that might, depending on who is making the comments, not be seen as serious university courses. The list includes a programme in Golf Management Studies offered by the University of Birmingham, Brewing and Distilling offered by Heriot-Watt University, and Surf Science and Technology offered by the University of Plymouth. Get ready, you might think, for the latest onslaught on university standards and cries of dumbing down. But actually, no. The article reports that the graduates of many of these programmes find employment more easily than those of, say, traditional humanities programmes in traditional universities. And there also are the UK Conservatives, arguing that such vocation-specific courses are what many punters now want and the state needs.

There are two issues here: the question of how vocational we should allow university programmes to be; and whether programmes that are as specific as these, and whose subject matter seems so trivial (as some may argue), are of any value. Or is there another, bigger question: whether the traditional university that teaches its programmes in the context of ‘disciplines’, set apart from the vocational world in which these might be translated into use, is now out of date?

It would seem to me that every university programme, however applied or abstract it might be, must pass a test of intellectual and academic rigour. The serious criticisms in the late 1990s of Thames Valley University had little to do with its programmes on kite flying, rock music and curry making (which all existed there), and were more about the chaotic management of the university’s ‘new learning environment’. Two of the more recent programmes mentioned above are offered by pre-1992 (‘old’) universities, so that an association between such offerings and ex-polytechnics is unjustified.

I don’t, to be honest, have the answers to these questions, but I suspect they raise for us an issue about how we identify universities and what activities in such institutions are appropriate. It seems to me to be right that there should be some diversity in the system, and that not all universities should aim for the same pattern of programmes. But that may not mean that there is no limit to the subject matter that constitutes appropriate material for university programmes. Or does it?


Writing skills

May 4, 2009

Some weeks ago I wrote a post in which I considered whether better examination results were evidence of ‘dumbing down’ in higher education. This triggered a fairly lively discussion. More recently I was at a dinner and was sitting at a table with several businesspeople – well, let’s be honest, they were all businessmen, but that’s another topic; I asked them whether they believed that university standards in Ireland had dropped. There was some discussion and some differences of opinion, but then one man there made a comment with which pretty much all the others agreed. He said he could not be sure whether standards were slipping, but he was inclined to say they were. And why? Because almost no graduate he employed just coming out of university could write grammatically correct English. There was a lot of nodding of heads when he said this. Jumping straight into defensive mode, I helpfully pointed out to him that in the statement in which he made this complaint he had split an infinitive and failed to use the subjunctive where it was required, but I don’t think this took him off his stride, alas.

I think I could not easily deny the truth of this assertion. However, I might add more generally that inadequate writing skills seem to me to be a feature of society more generally these days and are not confined to recent university graduates. I get scores of letters and emails which make me wince as I read them and have to negotiate my way through sentences lacking the basic grammatical elements.

The problem here does not, I think, lie in universities. We are not remedial English institutions. If someone cannot write when they get as far as us it may well be too late already. It seems to me that we need to ask whether our pedagogical methods at all levels of the education system are sufficiently directed towards these elementary but vital skills. If we are producing a generation of inarticulate young people we are creating some very serious problems for ourselves – it is an issue we need to take seriously.

It may well be that we have altogether lost a sense of the importance of grammar in particular – but I shall leave that for another post, soon.