Students and Universities - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Memorandum 59

Submission from Nigel Dyer

  I am writing in response to your request for information on the "dumbing down" of universities. I have had very specific experience of the changes that have taken place in that 25 years after obtaining a degree in engineering I have returned to university to obtain an MSc in Biological Sciences and so I am studying alongside students who have come through the system a generation later. An additional perspective comes from the experience of my son doing double maths, physics, chemistry A-levels as I did one generation earlier.

My experience is very much that standards have dropped over the 25 year period and I would like to pick out two amongst many significant changes I have noticed.

  The first involves student's maths abilities. At the start of my MSc we did a maths assessment, and of the 20 or so students, some of whom had just completed maths degrees, I came top (albeit only by a few percent). As I had not been using this maths in my work for the previous 25 years, I was a little rusty, so I should not have come top. The fact that I did immediately rang alarm bells.

  I had been monitoring my sons progress at school, and had got the impression that hole swaths of maths have now disappeared from the school curriculum (with little extra maths in its place from what I could see). As my university course progressed, this impression was reinforced, and much of what I had learnt at school now had to be taught at University, inevitably pushing out other material that would otherwise have been taught. This is one reason why students will not be as advanced at the end of their degrees as they were a generation earlier.

  Examples of topics that have moved from school to University include vectors, matrixes and set theory, all of which are essential to much of what we needed to cover in the MSc, and which are now only covered in optional further maths modules at school, which many of the students on my course had not done. We had to rush through the basics of these topics in a very unsatisfactory way at the start of the MSc. I covered much of this in the early years of the secondary school and have the exercise books to prove it.

  I became aware of another reduction in standards when I saw the wok my son did for his Physics A level. When I did my physics A-level, I gained extensive experience in performing and writing up experiments; 20 or so of which were submitted as assessed coursework (Again, I still have my notebooks to prove this). In contrast, when my son did his A-level, only one or two experiments were done and written up in this way.

  Consequently I entered University far more experience in general principles of experimental technique, something I believe I have retained, and this difference between myself and my cohort during the MSc was very clear. (During the intervening 25 years I had not been doing this sort of work, so a large amount of the difference I believe comes from our school and University work).

  My course involves taking exams at the end of each module, and I became aware that there was a distinct difference in the exams compared to what I was used to 25 years earlier. I felt now I was being led through the problem step by step, rather than having to work out all the steps unprompted. It was this that was a major factor in the fact I was able to come top in the initial exam, and is symptomatic of the fact that students are less equipped to tackle new problems than they used to be, a significant drawback when it comes to further research. A number of the course tutors have lamented the poor problem solving ability of students.

  I was interested to see that this change in the style of exam questions has been noticed by others and the results of the five decade exam challenge set by the Royal Society of Chemistry seem to align closely with my experience.

  A further area where I have felt there has been a reduction in standards is when I have taken modules where there are considerable numbers of students from all around the world. The varying abilities of the students, and their poor English meant that I had the impression at time that things had to be pitched at the lowest common denominator. I was interested to hear that one of my lecturers was being asked to slow his lectures down so that the significant number of Chinese students could follow what he was saying. His speed was fine for native English speakers, so I would assume that any slowing down will have an impact on the material covered.

  There are other ways in which I have become aware that there has been a reduction of standards in the education system, but I felt these were some of the more telling examples.

  I look forward to the outcome of your enquiry, which will no doubt conclude that there has been no reduction in standards.

December 2008

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