Polyglots plot as Glasgow letter screams foul over axe

Academics close ranks to defend beleaguered foreign language study. Matthew Reisz reports

February 17, 2011

The importance of language study, and the threats posed to it, were discussed by academics as news emerged of plans that could lead to severe cuts to the discipline at the University of Glasgow.

In a letter to The Herald newspaper on 10 February, opponents denounce a proposal to "close down six or seven out of nine language areas" despite "strong student uptake of (language) courses".

More than 40 signatories deplore the "loss of diversity" and the threat to "unique" courses such as Czech studies, "highlighted last September by the creation of a new Madeleine Albright PhD scholarship, which the former US secretary of state came to inaugurate".

A spokesman for Glasgow said a number of options were under consideration at a time of "unprecedented financial pressures", but stressed that no final decisions had been made.

The situation at Glasgow provided further ammunition for those speaking at an event last week to launch a British Academy paper, Language Matters More and More, which builds on the Language Matters report published in 2009.

The paper notes reduced student demand for language degrees, something likely to continue because of a similar decline at the school level - the total number of A-level candidates has risen by 24 per cent since 1996, while the number studying languages has fallen by 25 per cent.

It also points out that language courses are typically four years long, leading students to worry about their impact on debt.

Nigel Vincent, the Academy's vice-president of research and higher education policy, raised the spectre of the UK "becoming a nation of monoglots in a world of polyglots".

To prevent this, languages needed to form an essential part of universities' wider internationalisation agendas, he said.

David Docherty, chief executive of the Council for Industry and Higher Education, suggested that employers are looking for "people culturally attuned to the places where they do business". It was no longer enough to rely on English as "the Martini of languages - 'any time, any place, anywhere'", he said.

Baroness Coussins, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages, added a call for "a national language recovery programme" designed "to rescue us from a cultural and economic monolingual cul-de-sac".

Michael Worton, vice-provost of University College London, agreed that the basic context for the discipline was depressing, with "a persistent decline in demand for languages in schools and universities accompanied by the reduction or closure of departments".

Yet he argued that academics could do much to fight back if they set out "to 'sell' modern languages aggressively, assuming and addressing low levels of interest and knowledge".

Furthermore, Professor Worton said, "we need to keep a record of every time ministers express support for students spending a year abroad and keep playing it back to them - they don't like that".

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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