Social inequality and modern languages

What are the chances of working in Paris?

What are the chances of working in Paris?

During the last few weeks, the Scottish Government has faced growing criticism for its perceived neglect of modern languages. Business leaders and European government representatives have lined up to lament the decline of foreign language teaching in Scotland’s schools.

One newspaper estimated that the number of pupils taking a foreign language Higher had fallen by a quarter over 20 years, with particularly acute falls in French and German.

In turn, this has inevitably affected demand for University courses. Several institutions have shut down language degrees, or even whole departments. And one knock-on effect is that fewer language graduates are available to become language teachers, with obvious results for the schools and colleges.

Nor are there opportunities for people to catch up later on. On the contrary: part-time courses in colleges have been derided as ‘leisure courses’ (as though it were somehow improper to enjoy learning something as useless as Spanish or Mandarin), with massive reductions in the number of part-time and evening courses available.

As a result, increasingly the provision of foreign language teaching has become privatised. Despite the fact that only 5 or 6 per cent of Scots children are in private schools, the Scotsman estimated that the private sector accounted for 10 per cent of all Scotland’s French Higher students, 16 per cent of Spanish, 17 per cent of German and 18 per cent of Italian.

Meanwhile second chance adult learners are increasingly faced with a choice between private providers (including online providers like Busuu) and voluntary providers like the U3A.

Scotland is hardly alone: the number of first year undergraduates in foreign languages in the UK fell by 6% over the seven years up to 2013/14. Nor is it new: the Royal Society of Edinburgh was warning of the problem a decade ago.

But what is striking is that Scotland’s Government – always fond of parading its progressive credentials – seems oblivious to the long term implications of its policies for modern languages. Stated simply, those who master a foreign language are more likely to feel confident and communicate clearly in multi-cultural settings; they are empowered. Those who are monolingual are more likely to feel uncertain and anxious in multi-cultural settings, and to seek out the company of their monolingual peers; they are disempowered.

Ask yourself this question: Which of these two groups will thrive in our increasingly cosmpolitan and globalised world, and which will find its options narrowed? And why on earth have successive governments, across the UK, done so little to tackle this obvious source of long term inequality and inefficiency.

Mature students in UK universities: what future?

The number of people applying for university places in the UK is declining. According to the latest figures from UCAS, the number of UK domiciled applicants by May has fallen by 8.6% compared with the same time last year. Most attention so far has focused on the English applications, which are down by nearly 10%, while in Scotland and Wales the fall is aroound 2%.

These figures tell us something about the impact of the rapid rise in tuition fees in English universities. But I am surprised that no one has looked behind the headline figures, because the detail tells us a lot about who is being hit most – namely, mature students.

For the UK as a whole, the fall among 18-year-old applicants is only 2.6%, which pretty much mirrors the fall in the number of 18-year-olds in the population. In England, the number of 18-year-old applicants fell by 4%, which is a bit higher than then fall in the wider population. We still don’t know whether fees are deterring youngsters, as there are other factors at work, but if they are, then they aren’t deterring very many.

Mature applicants, on the other hand, are in freefall. The number of applicants aged 21 or over fell by over 10% compared with last year. Definitely not good news for those who wish to see higher education play its part in a wider system for lifelong learning.

This is not the full picture, as people looking for a part-time degree rarely apply through UCAS. Many people who want to take a shorter course in higher education, such as an HND or a Foundation Degree, will also apply directly. So we need to look at what happens to demand from adults for these courses before we reach a firm conclusion.

Incidentally, the figures also tell a few other stories. They show a huge drop in demand for modern languages, especially non-European languages, so you can confidently expect that a future government will berate the universities for failing to produce enough language graduates.

They also show that the trend for people to apply to universities inside their home nation is now entrenched, while only Scotland remains an attractive destination for students from the rest of the EU. This will have longer term consequences for the informal learning that goes on informally within higher education.