Offer accredited language teaching to all students, says report

Hepi paper calls for broad range of measures to boost ailing subject in UK higher education

January 9, 2020
Source: Alamy
Lost for words? ‘it is more urgent than ever that we re-evaluate our attitudes towards languages’

Universities in the UK should consider offering language modules to all students in exchange for credits towards their degree as a way to boost the subject in higher education, a new report suggests.

The recommendation is one of several put forward in a new Higher Education Policy Institute paper looking at how to tackle the decline of languages in the sector, published on 9 January.

The paper, written by Megan Bowler, a third-year Classics undergraduate at the University of Oxford, says that Brexit makes the study of languages potentially even more vital to the UK.

Yet the country’s relatively monolingual dependence on English stands in “embarrassing” contrast to other countries in the European Union, including the Republic of Ireland, the report says.

For instance, just 32 per cent of young people in the UK feel confident reading and writing another language, compared with 75 per cent in Ireland and an EU average of 89 per cent, according to a European Commission survey.

At the same, since the tripling of tuition fees, there has been a dramatic drop in the number of students taking languages degrees at UK universities.

Between 2010-11 and 2016-17, the number of university students taking French studies declined by 45 per cent, German studies by 43 per cent, and Italian studies by 63 per cent, the study points out.

It says that a central problem has been the decline in school pupils studying languages, caused in large part by the ending in 2004 of a requirement for everyone to study an additional language until at least GCSE level.

As a result, one of the main recommendations in the report is for some form of language learning to again become compulsory at this level, even if not examined, but it also calls for other measures specific to universities to help boost the study of languages.

“Some universities allow students to take language modules as part of their total course credits, responding to demand for more flexible interdisciplinary courses,” the paper says.

“Such opportunities for language learning as a core competence should be available to all as a recognised part of the educational experience covered by their fees, rather than a separate and expensive service.”

Other suggestions made by the report include introducing extra grant funding for the teaching of languages, especially those already vulnerable to course closures, and more integration between languages and other subjects at both course and departmental level.

Ms Bowler said “the cultural and political implications of Brexit mean it is more urgent than ever that we re-evaluate our attitudes towards languages”.

“Given the shortage of language skills in the workforce, we must safeguard higher education languages courses, particularly those involving less widely taught languages, and prioritise extracurricular language learning opportunities for students from all disciplines,” she added.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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