Languages pushed to brink

September 18, 2014

It was interesting to read that modern foreign languages are being marginalised in some of our post-92 universities in the wake of the fees hike (“Seeking commitment”, Opinion, 4 September). I fear that the problem is also spreading to some Russell Group institutions.

Our recent Higher Education Academy report, Evaluating the Impact of Student Number Controls, Choice and Competition: An Analysis of the Student Profile and the Student Learning Environment in the new Higher Education Landscape, found that as the high-grades margin policy moved from AAB and above to ABB and above in the second year of the controls (2013-14), pre-92s often had such a reduced core number allocation that subjects not requiring ABB+ were being squeezed, and those included modern foreign languages. While we have found no evidence yet of closing departments in these universities, there was much reported consternation at the trend in applications as well as the restricting nature of the high-grades policy driver.

At least one enterprising institution had begun offering languages such as Japanese and Russian as a combination option alongside the staples of medicine and the sciences, in order to maintain languages provision as a viable business unit. Reasons for this were thought to include parental pressure on GCSE and A-level options, leading to fewer applicants presenting with the higher grades for language degrees. Perhaps this example of how institutions’ priorities have been distorted by the student number controls regime helps to explain its unexpected abandonment (unexpected at least by those senior managers we interviewed in the weeks beforehand) on the occasion of the Autumn Statement last December?

Colin McCaig and Carol Taylor
Sheffield Hallam University

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