Last month UCAS announced a 3.5% increase in the number of students applying to university compared with last year. The relief across the sector was palpable as a further decline in applications could have had serious implications for the UK. However, this very welcome news contrasts with a disheartening drop, up to 6.7%, in applications to study modern language courses, continuing a long-term decline in language study in the UK, and its growing concentration among higher socio-economic groups. This decline is taking place despite widespread acknowledgement by key stakeholders, such as the CBI and the British Chambers of Commerce, and a host of governmental and campaigning groups, that foreign languages and intercultural skills play a vital role in ensuring global economic competitiveness. According to the Education and Employers Task Force (2011) poor language competency is resulting in a loss of at least £7.3 billion per annum to the UK economy or 0.5% of GDP. However, these bleak facts, and the threat they imply to the UK economy, seem, surprisingly, to generate little media attention.
“These bleak facts, and the threat they imply to the UK economy, seem, surprisingly, to generate little media attention.”
The removal of compulsory foreign language study at GCSE has led to a substantial fall in language study at GCSE and at A-level, along with a significant concentration of language provision in grammar, independent and selective schools. In 2011 the proportion of schools where language study is compulsory at KS4 was 82% among independent schools but just 23% in the maintained sector. This unequal provision is starting to be mirrored in our universities. Alongside a long-term reduction in undergraduate student numbers (4.5% drop in on MFL programmes in English HEIs between 2001-2 and 2010/11) compared with a 5.6% growth of study of all subjects over the same period, there has been and a significant concentration of provision within the research-intensive universities where students from higher socio-economic categories tend to dominate.
“The proportion of schools where language study is compulsory at KS4 was 82% among independent schools but just 23% in the maintained sector.”
Together with University Alliance, I am therefore advocating the introduction of a time-limited, means-tested bursary for Modern Foreign Language (MFL) study in England, which can be funded from the National Scholarship Programme and will provide extra help in attracting and supporting socially disadvantaged students who are finding it increasingly hard to study languages. This measure could help stop the decline in foreign languages study, enhance social diversity and ensure our workforce has the language skills to help the UK compete with the rest of the world.