At least 15 university language departments are under threat of closure or merger as fewer students opt for pure language degrees, the subject centre for languages, linguistics and areas studies has warned. In some departments staff numbers are down 75 per cent over the past three years.
The fall in recruitment to pure languages could jeopardise government plans to give every primary-school child the chance to learn a language because of a lack of language graduates to teach them, according to the centre.
The proposal to allow school students to drop languages at 14, announced in the 14-19 green paper, could further exacerbate the slide in the number of students opting to take languages degrees, feeding what may become a vicious circle of decline in pure-language learning at university.
Liz Ashurst, centre manager, said that if the closures continued, language learning "will become a bit like learning a musical instrument - a middle-class, add-on activity". She said: "This flies in the face of the government's widening-participation agenda."
The centre, based at Southampton University, launched ten pilot projects last October to reverse the decline in demand. They include a virtual-Dutch department at University College London and a database for French supply teaching.
Progress reports on the projects, which will receive £480,000 from the Higher Education Funding Council for England's restructuring and collaboration fund over three years, were presented at a recent national languages conference, Setting the Agenda, held in Manchester.
The centre's "languages box", sponsored by the French Embassy and containing presentation materials, advice and a video, was mailed to universities this week.
The conference flagged up the decline in language learning as an international problem. Wolfgang Mackiewicz, president of the European Language Council, said that the European Union was created as a multilingual society and linguistic diversity was important to the EU for political as well as cultural reasons.
Overall, language provision in UK universities is buoyant because students on non-language degrees are taking language modules via institution-wide programmes.
The Nuffield Languages Programme is planning to fund a comprehensive mapping of the situation in universities.
• Hull University has postponed the closure of Dutch and Danish sections of the department of modern languages until September.
Reinier Salverda, president of the Association for Low Countries Studies in Great Britain and Ireland, had lobbied the university to reconsider the "drastic and destructive decision" on closure.