No jobs for the tongue-tied

May 12, 2000

The Nuffield inquiry has suggested that a foreign language should be a prerequisite for university study. Frank Burdett disagrees.

Two days ago the Nuffield languages inquiry, chaired by Sir Trevor MacDonald, delivered its final report, which has been two years in the making. It reveals that nine out of ten children stop learning languages at 16, that university language departments are closing in a sector portrayed as in crisis, and that as a result our young people are at a disadvantage in the global economy.

The solution? The report's string of recommendations includes the controversial proposal that no school-leaver be accepted onto a degree programme without having studied a language post-16. It says: "Accredited post-16 language study, or equivalent language-learning experience, should be a stated requirement for entry into all degree programmes."

While desirable at one level, this proposal seems a little naive. Neither the Labour government nor universities seem likely to want to raise entry hurdles when their aim is to increase the number of students moving into higher education.

If Nuffield's idea were supported, the biggest practical challenge would lie in schools. With the development of Curriculum 2000 for post-16 education there is the chance to encourage languages, but do schools have the resources to deliver them?

If they do, the next challenge would be convincing universities to accept languages as a constraint on intake. In the competitive market for entrants, universities would have to be persuaded to turn good engineering applicants away for not having French.

Moreover, setting a language requirement for university entrance would kill the already depleted mature student market.

The Nuffield strategy seems to ignore the fact that higher education is a demand-driven sector. From single-subject degrees through to elective courses, money follows students. Until students themselves demand to study languages, the solutions proposed by Nuffield will only achieve partial success.

How can we create demand? Through the labour market. Data from research conducted by Luton University in 1,000 companies shows that few firms dare to make languages a requirement of appointment for fear of losing good candidates. Until students can see a real career advantage to languages it will not be easy to persuade them to choose language degrees.

The drama of Rover and BMW has real poignancy here. Rover struggled to address the language problem, pushing several thousand employees through German-language courses. To avoid the outcome at Longbridge becoming a metaphor for UK plc, a European-funded project, Language and Culture for Business, based at Luton, is working with four other universities to help more than 1,000 company delegates tackle their companies' language needs.

Looking to the future, the inquiry makes no reference to the needs of the exploding global economy brought about by the internet. Over the past four years, the number of non-English-speaking web users has grown from 10 to 50 per cent. We should be educating linguists to exploit this market.

The last word should rest with the "anonymous correspondent" to the inquiry who said that his students "were amazed to find job opportunities being denied to them because of their lack of languages". Change that, Sir Trevor and we will not need another inquiry in ten years.

Frank Burdett is director of the National Centre of Language and Culture for Business, University of Luton.

* Should universities insist that all applicants gain a post-16 language qualification before they can enrol on a degree course?

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