Nearly 50 years ago, sixth-form students found that they were faced with an extra examination if they intended to go to university. The message was coming from those seats of higher education that undergraduates were arriving without the necessary level of literacy. The “Use of English” examination was aimed at correcting that. It was aimed primarily at those intending to study science subjects at university; their language skills were not necessarily tested by the existing examination system. Those intending to take arts degrees were unlikely to gain university entry if their language skills were inadequate, yet “Use of English” became compulsory for all.
It was little more than an exercise in inserting punctuation and capital letters into text, but examination boards felt that it would help rectify what the universities were saying.
It appears that the problem still exists if we are to believe a senior figure at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Indeed, it seems that universities are part of the problem. A cross-border study in 24 countries of 150,000 people between 16 and retirement age concludes that UK university degree courses are failing their students in their provision of advanced skills. They appear no better than the skills attained by school leavers in other countries.
The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) concludes that the UK fails to reach the top 10 in the degree standards it is offering. PISA has previously made a judgment about school leavers and the skills attained as they begin adult life and their careers. It highlights the fact that more education is not necessarily better education and does not automatically lead to a better job or life.
It is not easy to match like with like, and while it is dangerous to generalize, a case can be made that Japanese school leavers can match UK graduates in terms of literacy and numeracy. It does highlight that there are real differences in standards across countries, and from university to university. When it comes to judging a graduate’s ability, it is important to look at where their qualification piece of paper was obtained and what the subject studied was.
It raises the whole question of numeracy and literacy across the board and is perhaps a good reason to visit websites that offer online tuition in those subjects – tuition that aims to use real-life situations to help people handle communication and calculation as it affects their everyday lives. If there is a problem at the graduate level, it is an issue that is likely to be prevalent at all levels of society. It needs to be addressed because national economies depend on a skilled workforce, and it is now a most competitive world.