Mind our languages

February 16, 2012

The opinion article by Sir Adam Roberts ("Tongue-tied UK badly equipped to join in the conversation of nations", 2 February) issues a timely warning about the decline of languages in UK higher education.

In 2001 there were more than 120 universities in the UK awarding language degrees. That number has declined today to just over 60 and, if the trend in applications that Roberts highlights continues, this attrition seems unlikely to halt.

The government's new tuition-fees regime has made a bad situation worse. When it announced the tripling of fees, many of us warned that languages were vulnerable compared with other humanities and social-science subjects because languages require four rather than three years of study. This means students incurring extra fees but, above all, an extra year of debt. Moreover, the year abroad is expensive for universities to administer and may be regarded as an unwelcome cost by university managements in these straitened times.

David Willetts makes all the right noises about the importance of language skills in today's globalised world. But unless the government and the Higher Education Funding Council for England offer incentives to students to offset the increased cost of a four-year degree and financial incentives to universities to support the year abroad, a further decline in the numbers opting to take language degrees seems inevitable.

Tony Chafer, Professor of contemporary French area studies, University of Portsmouth

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