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Higher Education and the Economy

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:35 pm on 19th April 2007.

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Photo of Lord Dearing Lord Dearing Crossbench 2:35 pm, 19th April 2007

My Lords, it may be no surprise to the Minister or the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, whom I congratulate on securing this well timed debate, that, in the light of the report I recently contributed to on languages, I should want to use this debate as an opportunity to urge that we realise that English as a language is no longer enough. We need to address that problem. In that context, I want to urge the Government to ally themselves with the universities to secure a major shift in our understanding of the importance of language capability.

It has long been recognised that the lack of languages is a non-tariff barrier to trade. Our trading partners have long recognised that and have committed themselves formidably to learning English. They have thereby gained access to our markets. We have failed adequately to perceive that if we want to reciprocate and get equal access to their markets, we must do as they have done. That applies not only to the economy but to individuals. Learning a language is enfranchising: it opens doors to our young graduates. As they mature and aspire to higher posts, it is also relevant to them.

Our problem is illustrated in a lack of take-up of places on the ERASMUS programme. We manage around 7,000 a year. France, Germany and Spain manage three times that. I congratulate the British Council on aspiring to modify that several times, but how can it do so unless we change our perception of the importance of languages?

I have another illustration of our problem—the lack of English-speaking translators and interpreters. The United Nations and the European Commission have expressed serious concerns about the way that the lack of such qualified English speakers has inhibited and impeded the conduct of business. The Government could help by providing funding for more postgraduate scholarships and studentships through the Arts and Humanities Research Council to promote translators and interpreters.

In last month's report on languages, to which I referred, we urged that the Government should commit themselves to a substantial programme, in partnership with others, to get across to our people and our companies the importance to them both of capability in languages. I hope that the Government will accept that as one of our major recommendations and that they will note a particular recommendation—the appointment of a careers and languages director to get across the fact that we need these people at the highest level.

We recommended a doubling of funding available through the funding council to enable our universities to go into our schools to get across to young people the value of languages. That was another major recommendation. We urge the Secretary of State in his guidance to the Learning and Skills Council to make languages one of our priorities for funding. I commend all those recommendations to the Government.

Turning specifically to the universities, they have high-level language facilities and have begun making those available to the wider community. That is a very cost-effective and well equipped capability. It is highly desirable that the Government should be prepared to fund pilot projects to enable us to establish a long-lasting use of that capability for the whole community.

For part-time students, the present high level of fees, which universities are required to charge to cover their costs, is an impediment to take-up. I hope that the Government will seriously consider how they can build in additional funding to provision of their courses.

The greatest dangers in life are those that are not perceived. A lack of language skills is dangerous because we do not perceive how serious it is. I urge the Government to enter into this partnership with universities to address that problem.