Managers urged to wait a year before ditching languages

February 25, 2005

Universities should wait 12 months before closing language departments, says a report on languages in higher education published today.

The paper, commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills, could give university managers time to reflect on the consequences of closing departments and to work out other ways of ensuring language provision. The report, by the University Council of Modern Languages, maps national and regional trends in higher education provision and comes in the wake of the Government's National Languages Strategy.

It says university managers are not fully aware of the strategy, under which languages are no longer compulsory in schools at key stage 4 (14 to 16-year-olds). There are concerns that this will exacerbate existing problems.

There has been a 15 per cent decline in numbers taking degrees in or with languages. Students are also concentrated in fewer universities, with 46 per cent of language undergraduates nationally studying in the 19 Russell Group universities.

The report makes 13 recommendations. These include making sure senior university managers are aware of the strategy and the importance of languages, safeguarding provision, widening participation and developing international strategies that include languages. For instance, a "languages watch" that monitored institutions, student backgrounds and courses would give an up-to-date picture of what is happening across the UK.

Roger Woods, chairman of the UCML, said: "We want to make sure senior people in universities get the message about the role of languages in higher education." This might include a meeting of managers to create more awareness of the strategy and help to implement it.

The same applies to encouraging universities to develop international strategies. Many institutions see themselves as having an international policy and have several degrees with "international" in the title, but not all include studying languages.

Professor Woods said: "Clearly, if you take the international component seriously, there ought to be some language element."

He said a forum of language academics and professionals could help define what "international" means. "The DFES is already thinking in terms of less widely taught languages of strategic national importance, but we would like to see that sort of attention paid to all modern foreign languages," he added.

Universities already provide outreach language activities in schools, but there needs to be more government support, Professor Woods said. "We know our fate lies in our own hands, and we are not just waiting to see what comes our way."

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