The new president of the British Academy has vowed to monitor “the health of SHAPE disciplines”, like modern foreign languages, which have been hampered by dropping provision in higher education institutions.
SHAPE stands for ‘social sciences, humanities and the arts for people and the economy’ and is a collective name coined last year by the British Academy, London School of Economics (LSE), the Academy of Social Sciences and Arts Council England.
‘’I will commit the British Academy to redoubling its work on monitoring the health of SHAPE disciplines, and particularly those affected by shrinking provision in higher education institutions such as modern languages,” said Prof Julia Black, the 31st president of the British Academy.
She added: “We will continue to advocate for all disciplines in the humanities and social sciences and demonstrate their ongoing role in tackling the great issues of our time – not least Covid and its many challenges for society and humanity. It falls to the Academy to champion the long-term future and vitality of these disciplines, and I know that it is equal to the challenge.”
Prof Black will serve in the role until 2025. The new president is also the strategic director of innovation, and professor of law, at LSE. She also holds roles on the Bank of England Prudential Regulation Committee, the board of UKRI, the Council of Science and Technology, and the board of the Courtauld Institute of Art.
Last year, the British Academy – in partnership with the Arts, Humanities Research Council, the Association of School, College Leaders, the British Council and Universities UK – launched proposals for a national languages strategy. Among the recommendations was a plea to GCSE and A-level exam boards to adjust grade boundaries and to the government to boost funding. The strategy suggests the UK needs a primary-age-level curriculum, intensive schemes for deprived learners and cross-sector education committees for universities and partner schools.
The latest survey of language provision in UK universities, by the University Council of Modern Languages (UCML) and the Association of University Language Communities (AULC), suggests that modern foreign languages are available in 91 institutions: 71 offer degree programmes, and 81 offer institution-wide language programmes.
The survey published in July – the third of its kind – asked staff in university language departments “to state how they feel about the future of modern language degree provision in their institution”. Fifty-two per cent of respondents gave ‘positive’ responses.
Recent years have brought several examples of language department closures, like at Sunderland University. A UCML report in 2019 uncovered that seven universities had ceased offering language degrees.
Research commissioned by UCML into UCAS admissions data for modern languages degrees between 2012 and 2018 “unearthed a more vibrant languages landscape in UK higher education than recent reports of ‘crisis’ suggests”, it said.
The decline in take-up of modern languages degrees is not as steep as has been previously reported, the analysis suggests. The decline is driven by fewer students choosing to study European languages – but, the research says, the growth in non-European languages could yet reverse the overall decline. This year, Chinese replaced Italian as the fourth-most studied language at degree-level. Korean and Japanese are more popular than Russian.