Universities: Impact of Government Policy — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:08 pm on 13th October 2011.

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Photo of Baroness Coussins Baroness Coussins Crossbench 3:08 pm, 13th October 2011

My Lords, I want to draw attention to the impact of government policy on the provision of modern language degrees, and I declare an interest as the chair of the All-Party Group on Modern Languages. There might at long last be a glimmer of hope that the Government have grasped just how detrimental it would be to allow the teaching and learning of foreign languages to disappear. I warmly welcome the announcement last month by the Foreign Secretary that the decline of language teaching in the Foreign Office would be reversed. As well as reopening the Foreign Office's language centre and a 30 per cent increase in spending on language teaching, he announced an increase in the number of jobs overseas for which language skills will be an absolute requirement.

In the business world, too, language skills are increasingly required, but UK-educated graduates are finding themselves at a disadvantage in a global labour market alongside their peers from other countries where graduates are more likely to be able to work in two or three languages, including English. Over 70 per cent of UK employers say that they are not happy with the foreign language skills of our graduates and are being forced increasingly to recruit from overseas.

This year, only 1.5 per cent of the 51,000 applicants for EU jobs in Brussels were British, and the obvious explanation is that they simply do not possess the required working knowledge of a second language. The review of university funding carried out by the noble Lord, Lord Browne, concluded that languages should be a strategic priority for public investment. Yet the changes in the funding system threaten the survival of modern languages degrees at just the time when we need to safeguard and strengthen them. Several universities have already cut back or scrapped language courses, including the University of Westminster, which has scrapped its flagship MA in conference interpreting, which had been a key recruitment ground for the native English speakers sought after by the EU and the United Nations. There is a desperate shortage of native English speakers in these services, and I would like to know what support the Government can offer to British students who wish to train as interpreters and translators.

At undergraduate level, the funding problem relates partly to the fact that language degrees are four-year courses, including a year abroad. Without this year, the quality and value of a modern language degree would be severely undermined. My understanding is that the fee waiver to universities for students taking their year abroad will continue for students who started their course in 2011 or earlier, but that after that there is currently no fee compensation built into the plans. Will the Minister review this situation as a matter of urgency, with a view to reassuring universities and prospective students that the fee waiver for the year abroad will remain? Will she also confirm that the specialist PGCE course for language teachers will continue to include funded teaching practice in a foreign country?

Languages, along with the STEM subjects, are defined as strategically important and vulnerable and, as such, receive some additional support, for example through the funding of the routes into languages programme and the language-based area studies programme. Will the Minister say whether this additional support will continue and how the Government intend to develop their support for languages, given their status as SIV subjects?

Finally, and despite the fact that the Minister is replying today as BIS Minister, I want to draw attention to the important impact that government policy on the school curriculum has on universities, and to ask the Minister whether she will undertake to speak with her colleagues in the Department for Education about the place of modern languages in the national curriculum. Universities cannot produce sufficient numbers of linguists unless schools are producing enough pupils with a language GCSE and A-level. Numbers here are in serious decline. The English bacc has boosted languages in year 9 to a very modest extent, but we will not see the level of improvement we need to see unless the Government reverse the current disastrous policy that languages after key stage 3 are optional.

Restoring modern languages to the core part of the national curriculum until the age of 16, which I hasten to add is not the same thing as forcing every child to do a GCSE in a language, is also important for social mobility because it is, of course, only in state schools that there is such a dramatic decline in modern languages. This is a very good example of how what goes on in schools has a significant impact on what goes on in universities. About a quarter of those applying to do language degrees are from independent schools compared with only about 9 per cent across all subjects. Can the Minister reassure me that she will set up early and focused discussions between her department and the DfE on the way in which language policies across the school and university sectors can be consistent and integrated?