News in recent months of threats to undergraduate languages teaching in three Scottish universities is seriously concerning.
This academic session, the University of Dundee has already suspended its first-year German modules, thus denying both post-Higher and ab initio students the opportunity to study this major European language.
Edinburgh Napier University plans to cut its French, German and Spanish courses from 2021-22 onwards. In the context of making savings, Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University has announced a review of its foreign languages provision, highly ranked for graduate employability.
Background: Steep year-on-year drop in languages entries
Also this week: New drive to bring Arabic into Scottish schools
What is common to the languages curriculum at these three institutions is a focus on the teaching of applied languages skills, either as a main honours degree subject or as subsidiary to another discipline, for example in social sciences, business or humanities.
Universities cutting languages courses
The targeting of languages by universities under financial pressure is not a new phenomenon and often it is applied languages programmes, rather than traditional language and literature courses, which disappear. Thus, in the decade 2000 to 2010, Glasgow Caledonian University, Abertay University in Dundee and Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen ceased all in-house teaching of foreign languages in their business schools.
It would seem hard to deny the professional relevance and transferability of the communicative skills taught on such programmes, which build on the language learning undertaken at school. On the written side, these might range from writing a straightforward formal letter in first year to composing a sophisticated report based on complex sources in fourth year. Orally, students might be required to progress from basic transactions and simple presentations at the start of their course to bilateral interpreting, debating and negotiating by the end.
Why then are such vocationally useful and culturally enriching programmes a repeated target for cuts in times of financial stringency? Institutions justify the closures by citing low numbers on languages skills modules, rendering them economically unsustainable. Linguists argue, however, that the issue here is not one of unsustainability but of under-resourcing.
Effective communicative skills teaching is carried out in small interactive groups, rather than in a lecture-theatre environment. Such courses need, therefore, to be supported by a higher level of government funding in line with strategically important, laboratory-based subjects.
The treatment of applied languages begs deeper questions about the purpose of universities and their role in society. Universities receive public funding, yet they operate according to systems, which can make it impossible for them to act for the common good. In many respects, they function as corporate enterprises, driven by pressure to make as much money as possible through international student fees or prestigious research grants. Within this context, it becomes difficult to prioritise languages skills teaching, which may be useful to society but is not perceived as lucrative.
Another reason for the fragile status of applied languages teaching lies in the culture of universities. Many academics, including modern languages specialists, whose background is usually in literature, cinema or related studies, regard languages skills teaching as primarily the remit of secondary schools and an activity devoid of true academic worth, to be delegated to less qualified, hourly paid staff.
The low esteem in which such teaching is held renders it vulnerable when choices have to be made by those in power. It is also a reason why virtually no research funding is available to support development in this area. Yet it is difficult to understand why activities such as translation, summary, synthesis, presentation and negotiation are not perceived as intellectually rigorous and why the related teaching is seldom deemed worthy of development funding.
The impact on schools
The cuts and threats to applied languages programmes in universities have knock-on effects for the schools sector. The decline in the number of students taking a foreign language in the senior phase of their schooling has been a matter of intense discussion and concern for three decades. The continuing reduction in the number and range of university courses can only exacerbate the now increasingly steep drop in uptake.
Secondary students looking ahead to higher education are less likely to be motivated to choose a language at national qualifications level if the subject is completely absent from the degree pathways of the universities they aspire to enter. Students wishing to focus predominantly on the development of practical language skills may lose the incentive to continue the subject at Higher, on discovering that options beyond that are largely limited to degree courses with significant literature, film or history components.
Apart from these negative effects on student motivation, cutting languages degree programmes inevitably reduces the pool of applicants for teacher education in a subject acknowledged to be an area of shortage.
In a post-Brexit, post-Covid world, as Scotland seeks to generate employment and build new alliances and trading relationships, there can be little doubt that there is a national need for outward-looking, culturally aware graduates who have learned to communicate effectively in international contexts.
Moreover, the country surely owes it to its young people to offer a coherent languages pathway through school and university, which will equip them with the high-level communicative skills and intercultural competence sought by graduate recruiters and necessary to compete in the global employment market.
Rather than reducing our practical languages teaching, we should surely be working to support and promote it.
Alison Borthwick is a retired senior lecturer in French and German, and taught languages in Scottish universities for 30 years