The note sent last year to all staff had what is, for anyone in paid work these days, a familiar structure and a familiar tone. First there was the obligatory self-congratulation: Queen’s University Belfast was, and would continue to be, “one of the best universities on these islands.”
In fact, there was a new aim — to be among the top universities in the world, with a new philosophy, politics and economics department, more psychology, more drug research. Unfortunately, this meant some “tough decisions” also had to be made. A total of 103 staff would be let go — and the German department would cease to exist.
Appalled letters (private and public), a Facebook protest, a letter signed by academics from German departments across the country, a march, protests from A-level (school leaving exam) students — none made any difference. Once the current intake of Queen’s University German students have finished their degrees in 2012, that will be that.
This is no philistinic blip on the higher education landscape. It is a pattern being repeated all across Britain. The University of Leicester, for example, will not have a German department from 2013. However, it is not just German: The University of the West of England, in Bristol, has just stopped providing half-degrees in French, Spanish and Chinese (German went four years ago). In fact, Language Matters, a recent report from the British Academy, says as many as a third of university language departments have closed in the past seven years.
“There are regions in the UK,” the report concluded, “where there is virtually no substantive higher-education language provision.”
Among the reasons Queen’s cited for canceling German was unsustainable student numbers.
“Unsustainable” is also the word being used by senior management at Leicester — perhaps because the managers concerned know that, on a national level, this is inarguable.
Ever since the previous government decided, in 2004, to make language learning optional after the age of 14, the numbers have been dropping. Tuesday’s General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) — exams taken at age 14 to 16 — results revealed that three-quarters of students did not sit a French exam this year, with entries having dropped 6 percent from a year ago to only 177,618. German fared little better, falling 4.5 percent to 70,169. A slight uplift in Spanish entrants (almost 1 percent, to 67,707) and greater interest in non-traditional languages, such as Chinese and Polish, was not enough to patch over a clear and depressing trend.
Caitlin Thomson, 16, stopped taking German as soon as she could.
“I didn’t really like it that much,” she says. “I didn’t understand it, and I found studying it hard.”
Perhaps that was because she had only done any kind of language learning for two years, between 11 and 13. She thinks that that was maybe too late to start.
“If you start doing something younger, you have more interest in it,” she says.
The Department for Children, Schools and Families says that languages will be compulsory for seven to 11-year-olds from next year, yet currently, only one in four primary schools offers any access to languages at all.
“There are schools,” president of the British Academy Onora O’Neill says, “who put zero children in for modern languages.”
That is partly because language provision is dividing, sharply, along class lines. A recent study found that 38 percent of 14-year-olds in the state sector were studying one modern language; a mere 1.9 percent were studying two. On the other hand, 99 percent of 14-year-olds at independents studied at least one language, and all schools provided French and German. Students at independents are five times as likely to achieve A’s (the top grade) in French, German and Spanish at GCSE as those in the state sector, meaning that by A-level language, students are overwhelmingly middle-class. At degree level, it is only really the pre-1992, Russell Group (older) universities that receive language applications in any numbers.