Of that which does feel the wrath of my red pen, much of it gets done on the bus to and from work. Occasionally I spare a second to pity the kids who are going to have to try and decode my angry scrawlings. My handwriting isn’t super at the best of times, and the contribution made to my unique brand of calligraphy by the 91 bus alternately sharply braking and then barrelling along Caledonian Road does little to help.
One thing that is getting to me though is the surprising standard of some of the work that’s coming my way. Well, okay, maybe I need to clarify that. There’s the whole spectrum of standards I’d expect, from the clueless few who clearly don’t yet know what’s expected of them, through to the blatant party animals who maybe spare a mere 3 hours the night before on anything they churn out, through to those already producing the sort of work of such a decent quality that I could never hope to match it, so just meekly litter it with knowing ticks and write "good" next to the bits that don’t go completely over my head. So no, it’s not so much the standard of work that surprises me. More it’s the standard of some of the students my university lets in.
I need to be discrete and a little cautious here, as this is potentially something of a delicate subject, but my university (which will remain nameless) has a fairly high ratio of international students: around 1 in 5. This is a feature common to many British universities, and undoubtedly makes for an interesting and diverse mix, but I don’t think anyone would accuse you of being overly cynical if you wondered out loud how much this has to do with seeking out a broad ranging student body for academia’s sake and how much it has to do with finances. You see, when you consider that currently my university typically charges its British and EU students £1175 for the year* whereas a student hailing from outside of such locales can be looking at annual fees of £20,000 for certain courses, it’s not a huge leap before you find yourself wondering about the motivations of our underfunded universities wanting to attract such students.
But this is fine I suppose. After all, we like to consider ourselves a global seat of learning. But at the same time, we shouldn’t forget that at the same time we are a global seat of learning which operates from and exists within the United Kingdom, and with that comes certain requirements.
I’ll cut to the chase here: some of the written English I am having to mark is frankly appalling. Go and click the Next Blog button up there and soon enough ur sUur 2 cum aX sum orfal Xarmpulls ov. ritan iNglish, but the blogosphere is one thing. Essays and the like at a University which likes to favourably compare itself with Oxbridge are quite another.
Obviously, I’m not dealing with anything that bad, but I am dealing with students where it is very obvious English is not their first language and they aren’t particularly adept at writing it. A lot of my students really jumble their tenses or word order, don’t know the difference between ‘was’ and ‘is’ and don’t know when to apply the definite article. I’m not being a prescriptivist here; some of their work is genuinely hard to comprehend. And I’m expected to mark work which is supposed to be of a standard expected of a student at a top British university: I can’t really let these things slip because it’s frankly not the required standard and there are students here, both those with English as a first language and those for whom it is a second or third, who are producing work as it should be.
And at the same time, I’m not there to teach grammar. Whilst I can highlight errors, I don’t have the time to explain to these students why when they refer to a group of people it is "they", not "he". And most strikingly, I shouldn’t have to. I don’t blame these students for their limited grasp of written English, because they applied to our university - as can anyone in the country or anyone in the world - and they got through. It’s not the responsibility of the applicant to be up to the task, it’s up to those selecting the applicants to choose those who have the skills that will be necessary. Nor do I begrudge the university seeking out foreign students: not only do they produce a nice financial earner, but I think we should be seeking out the intellectual cream from across the world to advance our research and standing. However, in the face of all that ready wonga I do sometimes think some of the students we select might be at the expense of those who are more able, be they British or otherwise, who we aren’t trying hard enough to recruit. And admitting below par students only serves to bring the value of everyone’s degree down, regardless of how proficient or inadequate each student is.
All this said, I’m not allowed near the finalists (they are too important). Perhaps we do do our jobs, and over the course of those first two years these students manage to equip themselves so that by the time they graduate they have perfect English.
*due to increase of course