Only one in 65 new students chooses a modern language degree – we need a rethink

Not the popular choice. LeafLanguages, CC BY-SA

Out of nearly half a million students who enrolled on a degree course in the UK last year, just over 8,000 of them studied a foreign language. New figures released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) have crystallised the difficult situation facing university language departments across the country. Only one in every 65 first-year students chooses a modern foreign language degree, showing a decline from one in every 48 in 2007.

Most university subjects are recovering from the recruitment crash of 2012-13, the first year that universities could charge fees up to £9,000 – and some subjects are showing steady numbers of enrolments. Since 2007, the numbers of students starting degree courses in subjects allied to medicine have risen a meteoric 39% and there has been a 30% increase in biological sciences. The figures are no less impressive for the mathematical sciences and business administration, both with a 24% increase.

But this is not the case for modern foreign languages where there is little sign of post-fees recovery.

Some languages fare better than others

Since 2007-8, the number of students choosing modern foreign languages as a first degree has declined by 16%. HESA chooses to flag up large decreases in German (down 34%), French (down 25%) and Italian (down 19%). In university modern languages departments, any slump in French, which is still the UK’s most important second language, has serious knock-on effects across the other languages as most of the courses on offer are joint or combined degrees with French.

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But others have done worse. Entrants to African language-based studies (included in modern foreign languages) have dropped by a whopping 44%, South Asian studies by 36% and Celtic by 25%.

There are some success stories. The student intake in Chinese studies has grown 3%, though not as much as might be expected, while enrolments for Japanese are up by 12%. Broadly based programmes within languages (such as business studies with languages) have risen by 39%, from an intake of 215 students in 2007-08 to 300 in 2013-14. Russian and Eastern European Studies (such as any of Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, Polish, Romanian, Bulgarian, Serbian) have also enjoyed some success, increasing their intake 4% over the seven-year period from 245 to 255 students, with a peak of 300 students in 2011-12.

Lessons in Portuguese

But by far the largest percentage growth has been in Portuguese, where the number of entrants has risen by 56% since 2007-8, from 70 students to 110. Although the numbers are still very small, the growth in Portuguese studies is a major success.

It goes hand-in-hand with the success of Spanish which, at its peak in 2011-12, admitted 1,655 students, almost double the figure in the same year for German. Apart from one or two exceptions, such as Oxford and King’s College London, Portuguese studies have been traditionally taught in university Spanish departments, sometimes by the same staff – hence the name Hispanic Studies covering both Iberian languages and Latin America. Portuguese was a sideline, often under-staffed and undervalued, kept afloat by the commitment and determination of a few Lusophones (Portuguese speakers) assisted by their Hispanist colleagues.

Portuguese, like Spanish before it, was taught to honours degree level from scratch. This made up for the lack of A Level provision and the lack of school teachers qualified to teach it. But when Brazil raised its profile in 2012 and promised UK vice-chancellors enticing funding opportunities, university heads have travelled to Brazil and found that to do business in Brazil they needed Portuguese and Brazilian expertise.

Almost overnight, new (or miraculously revived) Portuguese posts appeared across the UK and student intake rapidly increased. University senior management saw an untapped source of external funding and made an investment decision. They should do that for other languages too.

Strategic but vulnerable

Modern foreign languages have been highlighted by the Higher Education Funding Council for England as “strategically important and vulnerable”, meaning that intervention is needed to boost numbers and address the mismatch between supply and demand.

French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Arabic are global languages. Germany is the powerhouse of Europe, Russia a giant on the international stage. All these languages are strategically important to the UK and, at least in the UK higher education sector, extremely vulnerable. But programmes, such as Routes into Languages, to encourage schools to offer languages and pupils to study them, while positive, are not a sufficient response.

University senior management should introduce funding allocation models to assist the teaching of degrees in modern languages in universities. These models must take into account the costly demands of a double shift, where staff teach a language intensively to its most advanced level, and at the same time teach that language’s “culture and literature using the techniques of literary analysis and interpretation”.

Languages are no less “strategically important” or “vulnerable” than science and maths subjects and should be equally supported in their universities. Who knows from what part of the world the next funding opportunity will emerge.

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