Northumbria University the latest to draw back on language provision

Further cuts to modern languages departments have raised concerns about increasing elitism

October 22, 2015
Tongue-tied blue frogs on tree branch
Departmental closures risk leaving Britons ever more tongue-tied abroad

Further fears have been raised that language courses in the UK are becoming the preserve of the most selective universities after Northumbria University became the latest institution to draw back from provision.

Following a “languages review”, Northumbria announced last month that its “BA French and Spanish will be closed, there will be no further recruitment to this programme”.

A spokesman for the university told Times Higher Education that the move was one of various changes “to the way we deliver language learning” in response to “a fall in demand across the sector over the past 10 years”. Nevertheless, he added, the university “remain[ed] committed to the teaching of foreign languages”, for example through joint programmes and as part of its international business management degree.

The decision to close the French and Spanish BA went ahead despite a petition by alumni and interventions from embassies and academics across the world. The students’ union also strongly criticised plans to “abolish our only standalone foreign language programme”, which had “average[d] above 95 per cent over the past five years in the National Student Survey”.

Northumbria had also ranked 13th out of 61 universities (and first among post-92 institutions) for modern languages and linguistics in a recent national league table. And one academic, who asked to remain anonymous, suggested that the subject had “been under siege for a number of years” and “never given a chance to thrive”.

Jocelyn Wyburd, chair of the University Council of Modern Languages, has written to Northumbria about the closure.

She sees what is happening there as part of a broader trend. She pointed to the University of Salford’s closure of its modern languages courses in 2013 and to Ulster University’s recent decision to follow suit. Ulster’s move “leaves Northern Ireland with no degrees in either German or Chinese”, despite its vice-chancellor Paddy Nixon’s claim to be “mindful of the needs of a global economy” and his desire to prepare Ulster students “for opportunity in international markets”.

More generally, Ms Wyburd is worried about how the apparent shift of modern language students away from newer universities “reinforces the elitism already associated with languages…Speaking languages, being bilingual or multilingual should not be a mark of privilege. In most of the world, it isn’t.”


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The University of Salford has confirmed plans to close virtually all courses in modern languages, politics and contemporary history and shut down an entire school “to secure the future of the university” after seeing falling student demand.

Reader's comments (2)

As you say, this is a scandal. Ranked no 1 for student satisfaction, and equipping students for employment in local industries begging for graduates with excellent language skills, this department enjoyed the support of past and present students as well as local schools, with whom they carried out valuable outreach activities. The staff cared deeply about their subjects and their students, and have now been scattered to various different departments to see out their days. Very sad and quite wrong-headed in the light of Britain's need for graduates with language skills, not to mention Northumbria's supposed commitment to internationalisation. I speak as a fellow languages academic from a different institution who recognises the value of what we have lost.
The Vice Chancellor, Andrew Wathey, has coedited a book on Medieval French: that he has escaped a mention in this article speaks volumes about the intellectual and moral poverty of UK Vice-Chancellors, too eager to slavishly cut in order to receive their knighthoods, and incapable of defending their staff. He has, however, regularly raised his own salary.