Tongue-tied UK badly equipped to join in the conversation of nations

Amid falling applications to Ucas, languages are taking the biggest hit - bad news for our global standing, cautions Sir Adam Roberts

February 2, 2012

Credit: Gemma Latimer

Are some disciplines likely to suffer more than others in the new undergraduate funding framework? The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service figures released this week provide the basis for a provisional answer.

The starting point is that the Ucas data indicate that the number of all applicants to all subjects is down significantly - by 7.4 per cent - from 583,546 at the same point in 2011 to 540,073 this year. In England the reduction is even steeper - down 9.9 per cent. Much of this decrease is explained by a sharp decline in applications from older students - those in their twenties as distinct from school-leavers aged 18 among whom the application rate is down only slightly.

Many commentators will now be taking the opportunity to say "I told you so" to anyone who will listen; others will continue to repeat the "too early to tell" mantra that accompanies each release of Ucas data. There are grounds for concern, but amid them all, one positive note is the 13.7 per cent increase in non-European Union applications. This shows that in the global marketplace, British universities are continuing to do exceptionally well.

UK institutions have gone to great lengths this year to attract homegrown applications, not only through open days but also through writing to potential applicants encouraging them to apply. The decline in applications from England suggests that the prospect of higher fees is having some effect, but this is far from uniform across all subjects. There were blips after earlier fee rises, but underlying demand brought the numbers back up.

As president of the British Academy, my main concern is the health of the humanities and social science disciplines in our universities. The UK is fortunate in having world-class research and teaching in these disciplines. To maintain this strong position, we need to attract and retain the very best to our undergraduate programmes. The figures so far are not reassuring: while history and philosophy are down 7.3 per cent (about the average across all subjects), social studies applications are down 12.1 per cent - a major drop.

The biggest worry is the marked decline in languages and related studies. There has long been anxiety that the new funding arrangements would adversely affect language studies, partly because many language courses require an additional year of study and thus an additional year's worth of debt. Now we have evidence. Applications to European language courses are down by 11.2 per cent, those to non-European languages are down by 21.5 per cent: both decreases are well above the average decline across all subjects.

The bad news for languages this year comes on top of fewer applications last year. Some of this will be due to the reduction of language teaching in schools. For the UK to thrive globally, it has to have a deep-rooted understanding of languages and cultures across the world. Given some of the economic and political developments of the past few years, it is worrying that we are actually reducing our capacity in, for example, Chinese and Arabic. We Brits are at risk of becoming a nation of monoglots in a world of polyglots.

A few years ago, there were widespread concerns about the natural sciences because of declining applicant numbers. It is good to see them holding up, but the same concerns must surely now hold for languages and related studies. These disciplines are already vulnerable in various institutions: a decline in applications - especially if sustained - could exacerbate the threats to this valuable provision.

Perhaps this is a natural consequence of the utilitarian approach to higher education pursued by all the major political parties. The debate has been focused on the salary benefits post-graduation, and as a result other boons have been crowded out. Jonathan Bate, a British Academy vice-president, provided an excellent critique of this trend in a panel discussion at the Academy on 19 December.

It seems that some prospective students (and their parents) are worried about the debt resulting from attending university. But in a fast-changing world, the flexible skills offered by rigorous study in the humanities and social sciences are of enormous value, and this will be understood in time. But I would also like to see our national conversation mention rather more the full value and importance of education, in which the humanities and social sciences have much to offer.

We must wait to see how these figures play out in the final analysis when grades are known, offers are made, places are accepted and variations between institutions and regions are better understood. Meanwhile, these early signs will reinforce certain worries about the new funding regime - especially as they affect the teaching of languages.

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