Languages decline sees numbers drop to zero at UK universities

Latest Ucas data show increasing concentration of undergraduates in handful of institutions

February 24, 2021
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Of UK universities that accepted students on to modern language courses 10 years ago, more than half now have at least 50 per cent fewer students starting such degrees or appear to have ended their provision entirely, data show.

The decline in undergraduate interest in modern languages has been well documented over the past few years, with the latest figures from admissions body Ucas showing that the number of applicants accepted this year had fallen 36 per cent since 2011.

But analysis by Times Higher Education of the detailed Ucas data suggests that this has led to several universities all but ending modern language degree provision, with severe falls in numbers at many others.

The figures on acceptances show that in total 14 institutions accepted virtually no students for degrees in European and non-European languages this year despite having given undergraduates places in the past.

At a further 22 institutions, acceptances through Ucas have shrunk by at least half, although the numbers may not reflect students on courses offering a combination of languages or joint degrees with other subjects.

Just 14 universities increased their modern language acceptances last autumn compared with a decade before, according to Ucas data. Some of these institutions appear to be bucking the trend by attracting more students from the smaller pool of applicants that remain, with 60 per cent of acceptances now in just 13 institutions.

Among them is Durham University, where acceptances have risen by 31 per cent since 2010 and which gave a place to the most language undergraduates in the sector last year, according to the data, accounting for one in 14 acceptances.

Jonathan Long, head of Durham’s School of Modern Languages and Cultures, said the university had not specifically set out to be a big fish in a smaller pool, but it had thought carefully about the kind of modern language programme that attracted students today.

“One of its hallmarks is the integration of language and culture,” he said, adding that Durham had attempted to move away from the heavy concentration on literature that might have been the focus in the past and had included other aspects of culture, such as the visual arts.

However, despite Durham’s success, Professor Long said that if provision became concentrated in too few institutions this could limit the options for students.

“There is a really vibrant and diverse ecosystem of language provision within UK universities, and I think reducing this diversity would run the risk of impoverishing the discipline. It would reduce student choice, and I think we really need to guard against that at a time when the UK needs more rather than fewer linguists,” he said.

Claire Gorrara, chair of the University Council of Modern Languages and professor of French studies at Cardiff University, agreed that it was important to “maintain equitable and fair distribution of language capacity across the UK”.

“The rich variety across institutions – from literary studies, to applied linguistics and area studies – is one of the strengths of modern languages in UK HE.”

If the situation continued, she said, the knock-on effects for higher education and research could include a “decreasing ability for UK scholars to work in intercultural, multilingual teams and tackle global problems”.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (3)

Studying a modern language at degree level is just too hard for most people, sadly.
I have had good value over the course of 40 years from keeping up languages. It gives you a wider range of things to read and you aren't confined to what someone else thinks is worth translating. This is for those with an interest in humanities. In business, English is generally the lingua franca. You don't have to major in it.
A language on its own is not super interesting from a career point of view. I would argue its value is much higher when aligned with another subject (e.g. business, engineering). Students who have to pay for tuition nowadays, probably factor this in to their choices.

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