The British Academy has warned of a “vicious circle of monolingualism” in the UK after applications for undergraduate language courses fell for the second year in a row.
In a report, Languages: The State of the Nation, the body says that despite rising global demand for language skills, too few UK students are studying too narrow a range of courses at university.
The report, released on 14 February, cautions that with the introduction of tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year, students may be put off four-year language degrees because they are too expensive.
Nigel Vincent, vice-president for research and higher education policy at the British Academy, said that although demand for languages had been in decline before the rise in fees, the price hike was “a factor that will exacerbate a trend”.
The number of undergraduates accepted on to European language courses at UK institutions fell by 11.1 per cent in 2012-13, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.
For non-European languages, the figure was down 13.9 per cent.
This decline looks set to continue in 2013-14. The number of applications for language courses through Ucas in time for its 15 January deadline was down more than 6 per cent on the previous year, despite a 3.5 per cent rise in overall applications.
Professor Vincent said that if universities “back off” from teaching languages because of dwindling demand, “our national ability to have a language base disappears”.
Universities needed to come up with a joint plan to keep a broad range of language departments open rather than looking at their own “short-term interest”, which might be to close them, he added.
However, such collaboration was “at odds” with the competitive market system the government was trying to create in England, he said.
The report explains that because language skills are lacking in the UK labour market, companies tend to train existing staff or hire foreign workers, pushing down demand for British multilinguists and creating a “vicious circle of monolingualism”.
It notes that it is “very uncommon” for students to take languages alongside vocational or science, technology, engineering or mathematics subjects, and that universities should offer more of these combined programmes.
Professor Vincent said that the British Academy was also concerned by the narrow social range of students taking languages.
The report finds that nearly a third come from independent schools and four out of five study in pre-1992 institutions.