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Last Updated:  Thursday, 20 February, 2003, 16:51 GMT
Language study's 'elitist' trend
The decline in high-level language learning in the UK has accelerated, making it more of an elite occupation, experts say.

A report on the subject says a quarter of all languages students are in only five universities.

The next few years might see a massive decline in the numbers taking GCSEs, A-levels and degrees - but with many people wanting a language option alongside their main qualifications.

The report was commissioned by the Nuffield Languages Programme and written by Professor Michael Kelly and Dr Diana Jones of the University of Southampton.

Three years ago, the Nuffield Inquiry drew attention to the problems and this new report says the trends identified then have since accelerated.

Mixed picture

"On the one hand, more students than ever are adding language skills to their portfolio, while on the other hand, fewer students are choosing to specialise in languages," their report says.

Institutions in difficulties have avoided the bad publicity of closures and have simply run down their languages programmes through natural wastage
Nuffield Foundation report

In England, for example, the new AS-level languages have proved popular - but the numbers taking a language A-level continue to fall.

"At university, students are crowding into language classes accompanying degrees in other disciplines, and into voluntary language study outside their degree programme, while at the same time language degrees are struggling to recruit, and entire departments are closing."

The authors say this is not just a UK problem, because the same pattern is seen elsewhere.

Departments closed

In UK universities the number of departments providing language degrees has declined over the past five years.

Some - especially newer universities - have simply closed down their languages departments.

"More commonly, though, institutions in difficulties have avoided the bad publicity of closures and have simply run down their languages programmes through natural wastage."

None of the post-1992 universities in Scotland, and a growing number in England, now teach languages to full degree level.

Students taking languages degrees have fallen by about 19% over the last four years.

Remaining study has become concentrated in a smaller number of institutions.

By 2000-1, the twenty largest departments accounted for 63% of the provision.

Possible futures

The government has recently launched its strategy for language study in England, which involves dropping it as a compulsory GCSE subject while trying to promote it in primary schools.

The Nuffield report says it is hard to be sure what the effect of this will be: "predictions range from a small decrease to a near-total collapse in language study at GCSE level, and beyond."

The scene might be broadly similar to now.

It might be a little different - with a falling number of languages graduates available for teacher training.

A-levels could be "becoming the province of the academic and social elite" - on offer in independent schools but not all state schools - and with even fewer university language departments.


Conversely, language centres might be expanding to keep up with demand for language courses, with most universities seeing them as a way of "adding value" to degrees in other disciplines.

And the report says the future could see a "gulf" in provision beyond the age of 14 and A-level study down to a third of its current level.

Many schools might be unable to meet their obligations to offer a language option at GCSE - although there would be no shortage of teachers because hardly any students wanted to take the courses.

Only a few elite universities might actually offer language degrees - but with a boom in subsidiary language study.

The report makes a series of recommendations, including a review of curriculums, with good reasons being put forward for people to study languages.

It says collaboration between universities - and between universities, sixth forms and colleges - should be encouraged.

And there should be more study of language learning "on the margins of mainstream school and university provision" - including the role of the private sector.



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