Modern languages: seven more universities drop degrees

Two new reports address decline in students studying modern languages

Seven UK universities dropped their modern language degrees in 2019, according to a new report by the University Council of Modern Languages (UCML).

The Language Provision in UK Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) Departments 2019 Survey found the number of higher education institutes (HEIs) offering languages as a degree subject fell from 69 to 62 in 2019.

It also revealed a strong tendency for MFL to be merged with other disciplines, resulting in a perceived ‘downgrading’ of the subject. All HEIs surveyed have taken steps to mitigate the impact of Brexit with three promising to underwrite the Erasmus agreement for two or further years.

30 universities offering MFL degrees in the UK during 2019 responded to the survey. Non-degree language offerings, such as Institute-Wide Language Programmes (IWLP) courses, were not included.

Boris Johnson is the first Prime Minister since Harold Macmillan to have studied languages at university. So we hope he will adopt some urgent new policies to encourage a love of languages

A second report, from the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), has also highlighted the decline in uptake of languages at HEIs.

A Languages Crisis? (Hepi Report 123) highlights a 2018 European Commission report that found just 32% of 15-to-30 year olds from the UK can read and write in a foreign language – far behind France (79%), Germany (91%) and Denmark (99%). The report says these figures threaten the UK’s position as an academic and scientific world leader and suggests Brexit is “a pivotal time” to review policy and attitudes.

Author Megan Bowler, a third-year Oxford University undergraduate, makes 15 recommendations for reversing the huge drop in demand for learning languages in the UK. These include: more varied GCSE and A-Level courses; making a foreign language compulsory at Key Stage 4 (KS4); increasing teaching staff numbers; and supplementing tuition fee income with additional government funding to safeguard minority languages and facilitate free, additional language-learning for students and staff.

“The decision to limit language learning in schools by making GCSE languages voluntary is probably the single most damaging education policy implemented in England so far this century,” said Nick Hillman, director of Hepi.

“The UK is bottom of the pile for the number of young people familiar with another language, and miles behind every EU country. The problems this has caused are now hitting university languages departments hard. Student numbers for French and German have almost halved since 2010 and, for Italian, they have fallen by around two-thirds.

“Boris Johnson is the first Prime Minister since Harold Macmillan to have studied languages at university. So we hope he will adopt some urgent new policies to encourage a love of languages and to show to the rest of the world that post-Brexit Britain will not cut itself off from the rest of the world.”

Post-Brexit era

Senior university figures have responded to the Hepi report.

“Languages are vital to the UK,” Dr David Lees, director of undergraduate programmes for the school of modern languages and cultures at the University of Warwick, told University Business.

“As we enter a post-Brexit era, we need students of languages who will be able to take their skills into the workplace, working with colleagues from around the world in their own native languages. While it is clear that the number of students taking A-Level languages for some subjects is declining, for others it is actually increasing. So the picture is more mixed than might appear to be the case.

“Language departments at university and schools are still very much open for business. I welcome calls for financial incentives for teachers of languages – the earlier we can get young people interested in languages the better. Beginning at primary school right the way up to university level, languages develop a whole range of wider skills – empathy, intercultural understanding, communication– which are vital to the future professional wellbeing of the UK.”

Said Prof Andreas Schönle, head of the school of modern languages at the University of Bristol:

“This is a timely and important report, which makes a number of sensible policy recommendations.

“As the UK seeks to reinvent its relations to the world, the strategic importance of multilingualism cannot be overstated. Language learning in secondary schools has been hurt by the perception that it represents a difficult subject likely to result in low grades. Examination boards need to devise new forms of assessment that validate authentic communication, rather than promoting rote learning which can easily extinguish a student’s interest in the subject.

“A particular concern highlighted in the report is the increasing social divide in foreign language ability. Yet bilingualism opens many doors and fosters social mobility. The UK also needs to recognise the importance of community languages as an untapped resource, and the report rightly calls for developing syllabi and forms of accreditation for them. The economic, social, health, cultural and personal benefits of speaking more than one language are too important to be left to market forces. They require a coherent national strategy and sustained investment.”

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