Fees threat to languages

July 4, 2003

The cost of tuition fees is threatening four-year language degrees at UK universities.

From September, Exeter University will for the first time offer three-year language degrees as an alternative to the traditional four-year mode, which includes a year abroad.

Malcolm Cook, Exeter deputy vice-chancellor, last week told a conference on harmonising European awards through the Bologna process: "The cost of the year abroad is prohibitive for many students. Fees and the shortage of language students - especially from the state sector - mean that we have had to offer the three-year alternative."

Last September, foreign languages became optional in state schools from age 14.

Mark Davie, who takes over as head of Exeter's School of Modern Languages next year, said: "We hope that the four-year degree will remain the norm.

In exceptional circumstances, we had allowed students to do the degree in three years. But we faced making too many exceptions."

Similar difficulties are being encountered at Leicester University. Sharon Wood, head of Leicester's School of Modern Languages, said: "We have offered three-year degrees in the past to bilingual students who did not need the year abroad. But we anticipate that fees and widening participation will make this course attractive to students who cannot afford to go abroad."

Michael Kelly, director of the Learning and Teaching Support Network's subject centre for languages, linguistics and area studies, said: "It is significant that Exeter is moving in this direction. Many new universities have already been forced to do so. The key is to ensure that the three-year degree is robust academically."

Education secretary Charles Clarke, who also spoke at last week's conference, asked why a year abroad could not be included as part of a three-year degree.

Professor Cook said that Exeter was working with its European partner institutions on this.

Mr Clarke has also promised to defend the UK's one-year masters degree when he goes to the Berlin European education ministers summit in September. He said the Bologna process must "celebrate diversity rather than impose uniformity".

The one-year masters could fall foul of Bologna requirements for a longer period of study. Its loss would be a financial blow to many UK universities. Mr Clarke said that awards should be judged on outcomes rather than on blocks of time. He also vowed to defend four-year integrated undergraduate masters degrees - common in science and engineering - that Bologna seeks to separate.

David Ewins, pro rector at Imperial College London, said: "Among Russell Group universities, 40 per cent of all courses in science and engineering are integrated bachelors and masters."

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