I have an admission to make. I lecher. This makes me a lecherer after which I was a senior lecherer. What’s more, I lecher at the University of Hull where they made me a Proffesor. So I guess I could not of dun beter. My university, not usually in the headlines for anything, has forced itself there, becoming a national laughing-stock and earning an op-ed in the Daily Telegraph by Laura Freeman in the process.
The issue? Well, Nos Universitatis Hullensis has decided to abandon the need for students to write properly, including spelling properly, on the grounds that insisting on good grammar and correct spelling are elitist and reflective of largely white, North European and—brace yourself—male values.
The aim is to be more inclusive and not to discriminate against those who may not have mastered the use of English and for those from underperforming schools. One could question what these two groups are doing at the university in the first place. Are there not English language requirements and educational requirements for entry? Are these applied equitably, or do we have a process of positive discrimination? Let’s face it, the word ‘positive’ does not hide the fact that this remains ‘discrimination’ even if it is discrimination against the better educated who are fluent in English. Discrimination, however well intentioned, of necessity always excludes someone.
I have no idea who was consulted about this, I certainly recall no consultation with staff and have no idea if the students were consulted. Nor do I care. If something is wrong, it is wrong, no matter who was consulted. In an effort not to discriminate against the poorly educated and the linguistically challenged we have done them both a great disservice. We have patronised them beyond credibility. People from other countries and from ethnic minority groups do not go to the University of Hull for a second-class education. Yet that is what they are being offered. People from underperforming schools do not strive to get to university to maintain their own underperformance. Both groups come to be challenged, to learn and to graduate from university with more knowledge and skills than they entered.
There has been increasing emphasis over recent decades on the acquisition of ‘transferable skills’ in addition to a body of knowledge. These are aimed at skills over and above the syllabus which facilitate adaptation to the world of work. What could be a more transferable skill than learning to write properly? I was literate when I left school to study biology at The University of Edinburgh. Spelling and grammar were not a problem. But I had no idea how to construct an argument, assimilate evidence and to write that coherently until I was taught to by my mainly Oxbridge educated lecherers (sorry, lecturers).
The transferable skill, that brings me to these pages, has helped me earn a doctorate, write ten books and several hundred scientific papers and kept food on the table for my family, is my greatest gift given to me by those who taught me. It is impossible to imagine how this gift could be given to people if you are continually having to correct grammar, syntax and spelling. Even worse, it can never be given to someone whose grammar, syntax and spelling we are prohibited from correcting and subsequently rewarding when they improve. If we are determined to keep people in ignorance and perpetuate their incoherence and inarticulacy in writing, I can think of no greater form of discrimination.
John McNab is a professor at the University of Hull