The article “University language departments ‘at risk’ as recruitment slumps” (News, 19 August) continues the sorry saga told each summer of dwindling numbers applying for language degrees, fuelled by fewer students choosing languages at A level. The statistics are depressing, but the picture of decline is not uniformly grim across the sector.
The University of Westminster has this year seen numbers enrolling on modern language degree programmes exceeding targets and remaining at the level of 2013-14. Language degrees are rare and precious species and require the right environment in which to thrive. At Westminster, there has been continued support for languages from the highest level in the institution, despite the challenging recruitment environment. They are studied in the context of a higher education institution recently recognised, using government data, as the most diverse in the English-speaking world, located at the heart of a multilingual metropolis. Modern language degrees can burgeon given the right context.
At some point the penny has to drop for UK education. Employers continue to call for language skills and cultural awareness and point to unfilled vacancies resulting from the lack of language expertise among job applicants. The scattergun introduction of foreign languages into primary schools two years ago, disconnected from the study of languages at secondary level, is no match for the serious commitment to language learning seen in much of Europe. Having English is consequently a default skill for many educated Europeans, and monolingual British graduates gain no competitive advantage in a world of work hedged about by diverse communication situations. While the status of English across Europe has precious little to do with the political status of the UK, the fact remains that, following the European Union referendum, there are increasing calls to curb the dominance of English in EU business. Yet, as your article notes, languages at university level “face an uncertain future” of closing departments and cutbacks.
Westminster may be a light in the darkness here, but it is essential to keep the light burning, so that, when the penny does finally drop, we have the means to reignite the academic study of languages and cultures in the UK.
Pro vice-chancellor and dean of social sciences and humanities
University of Westminster