Lost for Words: The Need for Languages in UK Diplomacy and Security, launched at the House of Lords on 28 November, claims to offer the first systematic review of how “language capacity within the UK affects the government’s ability to maintain diplomatic relations and deliver national security and defence”.
Yet, at a time when international engagement was ever more important for the country, the “the fragility of provision for language learning within HEIs cannot be overestimated”, the report says.
Higher fees pose a particular threat in “the area of lesser-taught or minority languages”, including Turkish and Farsi, according to the report, given that “student demand is unlikely ever to reach levels that make provision economically self-sustaining. The gradual withdrawal of special factor funding over time has left some universities with no choice but to cross-subsidise these areas from block teaching grants, which will also end in 2013.”
An increasing reliance on philanthropy had also led to a situation where “the Chinese government now funds more Chinese language learning in the UK than the UK government, and this imbalance may give rise to potential strains on the neutrality/impartiality of the recipients”, the report says.
Speaking at the launch, Sir Ivor Roberts, president of Trinity College, Oxford, confirmed that “languages are under the cosh at universities as funding for teaching has been drastically cut, since they tend to be among the most expensive of the humanities. Even at Oxford, some of the smaller languages will go – and we won’t get them back.”
Others argued for making a certain level of language ability an entry requirement, but pointed out that the Office for Fair Access could constrain universities here.
In order to address the country’s dangerous lack of linguistic skills, the report highlights the need for “a cross-government strategy”. Universities, in particular, “should ensure they have the best structures in place to co-ordinate the allocation of resources to preserve at least a basic or minimum capacity in particularly threatened languages…links between [their] provision and the needs of government should be identified and strengthened”, the report recommends.