Year-abroad language study at risk, expert warns

Foreign-language degrees that include a compulsory year abroad are known to be highly rewarding for students and attractive to potential employers.

Yet grave concerns have been expressed about the future of such degrees in England when current funding arrangements come to an end in 2012.

James Coleman, professor of language learning and teaching at The Open University, warned that unless urgent changes are made, the new fee regime risks "putting universities off offering such courses and students from taking them up".

At the moment, universities can charge students up to half of their normal annual fees for a year spent outside the European Union or not covered by the Erasmus programme.

If this cap is removed or the 50 per cent is levied on much higher fees under the new funding arrangements, it will add significantly to students' growing debt burden - and potentially discourage them from enrolling on such programmes.

Universities may also face significant problems, said Professor Coleman, who chairs the University Council for Modern Languages.

For European work placements under the Erasmus scheme, for example, universities may expend significant time and effort making arrangements with employers. Yet they are not allowed to charge students for the year they spend abroad, and will now lose the funding that is currently provided by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

At a time when several universities are considering cuts to their foreign-language provision, this can only act as a further disincentive.

In response to these challenges, Professor Coleman called for an urgent clarification of the funding system beyond the year 2011-12, so that potential students can apply for degrees with an understanding of the financial implications.

He called for "higher-rate loans and/or targeted universal or means-tested bursaries available to all students spending a year abroad as part of their degree". He also argued that interest on student loans should be frozen while they are abroad.

In addition, Professor Coleman said that there was a clear need for "earmarked funding" for universities to compensate for money lost while students are overseas.

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