Michelle Donelan deplores literacy-lite exams at the University of Hull
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Michelle Donelan deplores literacy-lite exams at the University of Hull

The University of Hull is “dumbing down standards” by dropping requirements for good spelling, said Michelle Donelan, the universities minister.

Ms Donlan told MPs that she was “appalled” by the decision made by the University of Hull to scrap the requirement for students to meet literacy standards in assessments. She said the government “will act”.

Robert Halfon, Conservative chairman of the Education Select Committee, criticised Hull’s decision, labelling it “patronising and counterproductive”.

The university had asked professors not to penalise students for spelling mistakes, provided no external assessment body required good English, as they believed demanding good English in assessments could be seen as “elite”. Instead, the university encouraged students to write in a voice “that celebrates, rather than obscures their particular background or characteristics”.

Mr Halfon raised concerns in the commons. He said: “I know that the minister’s passion, and mine, is to ensure that more people from disadvantaged backgrounds attend higher education.

“However, does the minister agree that the proposal . . . is entirely the wrong way to go about this? It is patronising and counterproductive. Is it not better for universities to work with schools and colleges to ensure that all pupils reach the required standards of literacy to secure places on quality degree courses and degree apprenticeships?”

Ms Donelan responded with: “That will never help disadvantaged students. Instead, the answer is to lift up standards and provide high quality education.”

It is patronising and counterproductive

-Robert Halfon

A spokesman for the University of Hull said: “As a university, we are committed to removing barriers to learning, increasing social mobility and providing opportunities to students from all backgrounds.

“Inclusivity is one of our core values, and we firmly believe that everyone — regardless of their background — should have an opportunity to study and succeed.”

The university said it balanced its “inclusive approach” with academic standards by adhering to the competencies of the Quality Assurance Agency’s (QAA) subject-level benchmarks.

Worcester University has a policy on inclusive marking, asking lecturers to focus on “how well the student has communicated their understanding” of the subject rather than spelling, punctuation, and grammar when not central to the assessment criteria.

The University of the Arts London also tells markers to “actively accept spelling, grammar or other language mistakes” if they do not “significantly impede communication”.

The Office for Students (OfS), the independent regulator of higher education in England, said it would not support policies that suggested standards should be lowered for some groups.

Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation, said there was “an unexplained gap in outcomes” for some groups of students. He added: “Universities are looking at various ways of reducing these disparities but that should never result in a reduction in the academic rigour required for higher education courses.”

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