Language gift keeps giving, EU students keep taking

Mission groups blame school policy for Britons' lack of linguistic enthusiasm. Jack Grove reports

January 26, 2012



Credit: Alamy
Words that speak volumes: language skills can improve job prospects


The startling mismatch between the linguistic skills and ambitions of foreign students and their UK counterparts has been highlighted in evidence to a House of Lords inquiry.

Addressing a Lords committee investigating European Union involvement in higher education, Tony Downes, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Reading, said overseas students who were often already proficient linguists were far keener to take extra language modules in UK universities than their British peers.

"The greatest take-up of foreign language courses is from foreign-students taking up a four or fifth language," he said.

Professor Downes, who was representing the 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive universities, added that the decision to drop languages as a compulsory subject at school at the age of 14 had been a mistake. He argued for greater efforts to promote language skills, pointing out that the evidence showed that those who studied abroad had better job prospects.

Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and chair of the Million+ group of post-1992 universities, also pointed the finger at schools when addressing the low demand for higher-level language courses among Britons.

"The popularity of language modules has declined, possibly because students feel less equipped by their school experience," he said. "We need to face [the fact that] we have a significant challenge when it comes to our schools and universities teaching our students [languages]."

However, Graham Galbraith, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire, said languages remained popular among some students.

Speaking on behalf of the University Alliance, which represents 23 "business-facing" institutions, he said there was a "20 per cent take-up of languages voluntarily" in some disciplines, although there was a "social divide", with affluent students most likely to study them.

Representing the Russell Group of larger research-intensive institutions, Jennifer Barnes, president of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, added: "Many state schools have dropped their languages and started a [social division] early where some students are disadvantaged."

The evidence last week from the university mission groups followed an earlier appearance before the committee by David Willetts.

The universities and science minister dismissed the European Commission-funded U-Multirank project, which aims to provide an alternative to the mainstream university rankings in which European institutions typically perform badly. He described it as an "unnecessary burden" on universities and "not a good use of limited EU resources".

"We are very sceptical about it...because it looks like, to put it crudely, an attempt by the Commission to fix a set of rankings so that [European universities] do better than [they] appear to in the conventional rankings," Mr Willetts said.

"I am reminded by some attempts [in the financial world] to say, 'we will ignore uncomfortable evidence from Standard & Poor's', or whatever. That is not going to work."

He also said that a proposal to increase the EU's education budget for 2014-20 by 70 per cent was "unrealistic" given the budget constraints of member countries.

jack.grove@tsleducation.com.

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