Select Committee on Education and Employment Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from the University Council of Modern Languages (UCML) (HE 129)


  1.1.  The University Council of Modern Languages (UCML) is the overarching organisation which represents language departments in Higher Education, and a large number of the professional and scholarly associations in languages, linguistics and area studies.

  1.2.  UCML is pleased to have an opportunity to submit evidence to the Higher Education Inquiry in this, the European Year of Languages. UCML believes strongly that students of all disciplines in the 21st century will need to situate their learning experience and their notions of citizenship within an increasingly international framework.

  1.3.  Languages are vital to the future of our young people for three reasons. Firstly, as the Nuffield Languages Inquiry demonstrated, with 30 per cent of our GDP drawn from international trade, there is a growing demand from UK business for people with languages. Secondly, languages help to develop general communication skills and it is these which employers consistently rate as the most important skills. Thirdly, an understanding of other nations, and a positive attitude towards other cultures will need to be vital components in the graduate portfolio of the future. For all these reasons, it is important that the UK Higher Education system contributes to preparing young people for global citizenship in as full a way as possible.

  1.4.  UCML's evidence is that the quality of the student experience in degrees in which languages are a major part is being critically affected by current financial considerations.


  UCML believes that there are systemic disincentives discouraging young people at university from spending a credited portion of their course in study or work-placements outside the UK. These disincentives affect students on language degrees and on those degrees ( with for example science, engineering or law) in which a foreign language is a major component.


  3.1  The UK needs graduates capable of operating effectively in different linguistic and cultural contexts. Research shows clearly that a study or work placement abroad is a sound investment, helping graduates get their first and subsequent jobs. There is now evidence however that an increasing number of students are opting out of residence abroad. University language departments report higher numbers of students seeking to transfer to other courses before the Year Abroad, or arguing that their specific family circumstances now make it impossible for them to meet the study abroad requirements of the course for which they enrolled. One university for example has noted that, whilst in the past a small number of mature students have opted for a languages-related degree pathway which did not include residence abroad, the proportion of non-mature students transferring to this route has grown from 15 per cent in 1997-8 to 42 per cent in 1999-2000. The perception of one year's additional expenditure, in addition to a fee-payment, is clearly operating in these cases to discourage students from undertaking a vital part of specialist language learning, and one which is not only of major future employment value to the individual student concerned, but is also of considerable potential future benefit to the UK economy. Degrees in Modern Languages, or joint degrees in a language and another subject (eg science/engineering/law), enable young people in the future to compete effectively in the European and global job-market.

  3.2  At the very least therefore, it is vitally important to remove structural financial disincentives for all placements abroad: waiving fees for Socrates/Erasmus exchanges has been a crucial first step, but has itself introduced further problems.

  3.3  As UCML pointed out in its previous submission,the fee arrangements for students spending time abroad are currently inconsistent and discriminate against certain types of arrangements and certain countries. Table 1 below sets out the variety of fee arrangements which now operate.

Table 1

Type of Residence Abroad
Student Fees
Full-year Socrates/Erasmus exchange
No home fees.
Teaching Assistantship
50% of home fees
Work Placement
50% of home fees
Countries outside the EU: any arrangements
50% of home fees

  3.4  The damaging effects of these inconsistencies are already noticeable in three areas. The number of teaching assistants going to France and Germany had been relatively stable for twenty years. Recent figures from the Central Bureau however suggest that numbers of UK students going as teaching assistants to France, Germany and Spain have all fallen over the past year: the largest decline is in those going to France, a fall of 20 per cent on the 1994 peak figure. Traditionally, the foreign assistantship scheme has been a major source from which future foreign language teachers for UK schools are recruited. The marked reduction in students taking assistantships since the introduction of student fees will inevitably impact on future foreign language teacher supply to our schools, in a situation in which teacher shortages in languages have been the object of DFEE action elsewhere.

  3.5  The current fee arrangements represent particular disincentives for those students seeking to have work placements outside the UK. This is ironic in view of recent research (Professor J. Coleman, Portsmouth University)which suggests that work placements bring the greatest improvements in foreign language proficiency, in confidence in using the foreign language, and in employability. Given the recommendations of the Nuffield Languages Inquiry that language skills should be built into the culture and practice of British business, it is of major concern to UCML that current fee arrangements are operating to discourage the type of placements which would be of direct value to the future of UK business.

  3.6  Finally, it is evident that students seeking to study or work in countries outside the EU and those countries participating in Socrates are severely disadvantaged by present fee arrangements. Potentially these areas, for example Latin America, China, Japan and Russia, are of major importance to the UK economy, as has been recognised by recent HEFCE "Minority Subjects" initiatives in relation to Eastern Europe/Russia and Asia. If students are to be attracted to study the languages of these areas, and continue on such courses, it is vital that financial disincentives to residence abroad should be speedily lifted.


  4.1  The Nuffield Languages Inquiry recommended extending the fee waiver to include all arrangements for residence abroad. UCML strongly endorses this recommendation, and calls on the Education Sub-Committee to ensure that the disincentives to students on teaching or work placements, or to those developing language skills in countries outside the EU, should be lifted as a matter of extreme urgency.

  4.2  UCML has already presented evidence to the Sub-Committee ( copy enclosed for information) on the potential ghettoization of language study within a small elite in this country. UCML urges the Sub-Committee to use the opportunity of the European Year of Languages this year in order to address Higher Education's contribution to some of the strategic issues of foreign language learning policy in the UK.

University Council of Modern Languages (UCML)

January 2001

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