UK heads for bottom of the class for poor linguistic skills

February 9, 2007

The loss of university departments of French, German and Italian is a trend that stands to threaten the UK's intellectual and cultural life, according to Bill Brooks.

The chair of the Council of University Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities said: "The loss of high-level language skills and the intercultural competencies that go with them impoverishes the intellectual and cultural life of the country.

"Closure of university language departments is the consequence of inept policy decisions around language teaching in schools by successive governments. Given where we are, concentration of resources to ensure the sustainability of the research base in French, German and Italian has a degree of inevitability about it. It is to be hoped that language communities will be able to work together to support and expand the research base while maintaining disciplinary integrity."

In the decade to 2007 there has been an overall decline of nearly 20 per cent in UK institutions providing French, German or Italian undergraduate degrees, according to new analysis from the University and College Union.

Departments have closed (Dundee University is the latest casualty) or have been reintegrated into wider language schools.

Regional analysis shows a huge drop in the number of courses available in all languages in London, as specialist language degrees shift out of post-92 institutions and become more entrenched in those of the Russell Group.

This week Onora O'Neill, president of the British Academy, warned the decline in language learning affected all UK scholarship. "There is a risk UK research will become increasingly insular."

Pam Moores, the new chair of the University Council of Modern Languages, said: "If there are many universities with no modern foreign language provision, it looks like a declining discipline. There are fewer academic programmes and staff. It doesn't encourage young people to do research."

Diminished access to specialist language degrees will have repercussions for research, she said. "We will lose specialist knowledge, which will be lost to university-wide language programmes as well. There will not be the people who go on to be the esearchers and specialist language academics of the future." The cultural and intellectual element of language degrees would also be lost, Professor Moores added.

Ann Heilmann, vice-president of the National Conference of University Professors, said exchange programmes with foreign institutions would suffer. "With falling language provision students increasingly lack the skills to participate in exchange programmes."

Mike Kelly, professor of French and head of the national languages subject centre at Southampton University, has analysed language statistics. "There clearly are declines and increased concentration in a smaller number of institutions. We're heading for a situation where language degrees will only be in the Russell Group.

"The concentration is damaging because it reduces the number of different sorts of institutions doing interesting research, so it reduces innovation and limits the diversity of teaching."


  • The total number of UK higher education institutions providing single, joint or combined honours in French, German or Italian fell 18 per cent from 223 in 1998 to 183 in 2007
  • Institutions providing courses in French fell by 15 per cent from 93 in 1998 to 79 in 2007
  • Institutions providing courses in German fell by 25 per cent from 87 in 1998 to 65 in 2007
  • Institutions providing courses in Italian fell by 9 per cent from 43 in 1998 to 39 in 2007
  • Institutions providing courses in French fell by per cent in London from 15 in 1998 to 11 in 2007
  • Undergraduate degrees in German fell by 58 per cent in London from 12 in 1998 to 5 in 2007.

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