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.

Which government department should run the universities?

I’ve just learned that the Austrian government has decided to merge its Ministry for Research and Science with its counterpart for trade and industry. The new department will be known as the Ministerium fuer Wissenschaft, Forschung und Wirtschaft -Science, Research and Business.

One of the areas that will transfer into the MWFW is responsibility for universities, including the technical universities. The only exception are the Paedagogische Hochschulen, or colleges of education, which will remain where they are in the Ministry of Education. Otherwise, the Austrian decision broadly mirrors the situation in England, where the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills looks after higher education.

Like a lot of people, I saw the mergers and renamings that led to the creation of BIS as effectively an expression of the primacy accorded to the economic function of higher education. I am inclined to see the Austrian shift as having a similar effect. I also think we should understand these changes as part of a more general European trend in the realignment of higher education and its dual functions of teaching and research.

The decision to leave the colleges of education under the Ministry of Education might also be of interest to others involved in teacher education elsewhere. In Britain, teacher education became primarily a university-based process during the second half of the last century, but there is no intrinsic reason why this should continue, and the Austrian decision to keep teacher education in the Ministry that runs schools is a reminder that there are alternatives to university-led ITE.