Modern languages in decline at university but “crucial” for post-Brexit UK

The number of acceptances to modern languages degree courses at university fell by more than a third from 2011 to 2020, according to new subject data from UCAS.

There were just 3,825 acceptances to European and non-European languages courses at undergraduate level last year, compared to 6,010 in 2011, a 36% drop.

Languages also experienced a significant decline as a percentage of total acceptances for all degree courses in this period, from 1.22% in 2011 to 0.67% in 2020.

This was in stark contrast to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects such as computer sciences, which experienced a near-50% rise in acceptances from 20,420 to 30,090.

A graph showing the decline in modern languages at universities over the last decade

Professor Giuliana Pieri, head of the School of Humanities at Royal Holloway University and previously head of the Languages, Literatures and Cultures department, was not surprised by the statistics but thought there were other trends to consider.

She said: “The idea that languages are difficult subjects in which it’s much harder to achieve very high grades is the single most pernicious perception, because it means lots of students then lack the confidence to choose a language at A-level.

“There is this bizarre perception that if you are very good at a language, you are basically a native speaker. It’s a bit like telling someone who’s thinking of studying physics at university: ‘I’m not sure you’re going to be very good because you’re not as good as Einstein’.

“Nobody studying maths will think they’re not good enough because they can’t do PHD-level maths. But with languages, somehow students who are very good at GCSE think of A-levels and beyond as impossible because they’re not going to be as fluent as a native speaker.”

She claimed that the UK Government’s decision in 2002 to scrap compulsory modern languages for over-14s had led to fewer students taking up languages at A-level and studying them at university, with smaller university languages departments closing as a result.

Pieri added that many students were unaware they could study a language at university without having taken the subject at A-level.

In 2019 the British Council released a report stating that the combined effects of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union and harder exams at GCSE and A-level were turning young people away from languages.

Pieri said Brexit was one of several factors behind the drop in acceptances, including languages departments being concentrated in a small group of mainly Russell Group universities and the perception of languages as an elite subject.

But she added that the statistics from UCAS did not reflect Royal Holloway’s experience, where she said admissions to languages courses had been stable and even increased by “5-10%” over the past five years.

She also explained UCAS subject data may not take into account courses in which students combine languages with other subjects.

Pieri said: “Where you can study languages at degree level is potentially linked to these decreasing numbers. The pool of departments that teach languages at degree level has decreased.

“Anti-European feeling has been quite prominent in a lot of the media and in public discourse. The year preceding the referendum and the prolonged period before the Brexit agreement haven’t helped grow that desire in students to study languages.

“The UCAS numbers tend to focus on the students who do single honours rather than the combined students.

“The biggest change I have seen since starting my career over 20 years ago has been from students specialising in one language to moving to joint honours languages degrees, to then studying one language with another subject. That might also affect the figures.”

She said there was reason for optimism in how acceptances to languages courses were now “much more stable”, despite the overall downward trend for the nine years between 2011 and 2020.

Acceptances fell by 32.7% from 6,010 in 2011 to 4,045 in 2018, but from 2018 to 2020 they dropped by just 5.4%.

In the British Council’s annual report into language trends in 2019, 45% of state schools who responded said the UK’s exit from the EU posed a challenge to providing high quality language teaching.

Pieri said linguists were “absolutely crucial” in a post-Brexit UK and added she was confident younger generations were rejecting the anti-European sentiment stirred up by the 2016 referendum and its aftermath.   

She said: “Every single report points to the fact that if you don’t speak English, you are at a huge disadvantage. But you are at an equally huge disadvantage if you only speak English.

“Students of languages have the huge advantage of being incredibly able communicators. When you speak another language, that language is a gateway to a different culture, but you also think in a different way.

“Universities ought to invest properly in languages as skills that are available to all of their students. Schools of management and business should embrace the idea of international and global business through equipping students with strong language skills, as they do them a great disservice by not doing that.

“We need to get the message across to students that you don’t need to be a bilingual level language whiz to study languages at university productively and successfully.”

Featured image credit: Royal Holloway, University of London

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