Doom of languages

July 18, 1997

A national inquiry is urgently needed to prevent "Armageddon" in university language departments, a leading linguist warned this week.

Michael Kelly, chair of the Universities Council of Modern Languages and the Language Strategy Working Group is urging ministers to set up the over-arching review body to re-examine the role of modern languages in Britain.

A key target is the Higher Education Funding Council's new funding methodology for teaching, which he said would "create an impossible situation" for university language departments.

"The School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies and the universities of Keele, Lancaster, Exeter and Swansea are having very serious problems with their language departments," said Professor Kelly. "But there are almost no language departments not facing major financial deficits."

Because HEFCE's funding plans for teaching for 1998/99 classify French, German and Spanish with humanities as "classroom-based" they will attract the least cash.

"Modern language laboratories are heavily computer based and you can't teach people to speak a foreign language in a lecture of 150 people," said Professor Kelly.

A HEFCE spokesman said that the price groups for subjects were based on university "departmental expenditure returns" and had been subject to consultation.

But Professor Kelly said that the plans were just one part of a "vicious circle" which was gathering momentum.

"Not enough people are coming out of schools with modern foreign languages," he said. "So not enough people are going onto university courses, and not enough language graduates are going into teacher training, so there are not enough language teachers and then we're back to schools."

University applications for "language combinations" for 1997 entry were down by over 5 per cent to 29,000 according to latest figures from the University and Colleges Admission Service.

"We need far more national collaboration and cooperation," said Professor Kelly. "We ultimately need some kind of umbrella body, some kind of Government-led national quango to coordinate a more interventionist approach. We cannot just leave it to market forces."

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