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for languages

We were interested to read the article (17 October), by the chief executive of SCAA, Nick Tate, concerning the teaching of modern foreign languages in schools. We are the only country in the EU (including Scotland) not to teach, as part of the normal curriculum, any modern foreign language before the age of 11, and all the signs are that we are not very good at motivating pupils to learn such languages even then.

Without such motivation at an earlier age there seems little hope for Dr Tate's preferred solution of "greater encouragement ... post-16". In any case this simply means that effective modern foreign languages become available only for a minority of pupils.

We agree that there is a need for new approaches, to "take forward the debate about the best ways of teaching languages". Our own researches, in this country and the rest of the EU, suggest that programmes can be developed in language awareness at primary level, which can be conducted within the existing curriculum provision, that will extend pupils' understanding of how language works, both aiding the development of their own mother tongue learning and increasing their motivation for modern foreign language learning at secondary school.

Anthony Adams & Witold Tulasiewicz

Wolfson College, Cambridge

Never too late

The view expressed by Nick Tate raises well debated issues. However, it should be remembered that most universities offer beginners' language courses to students embarking on European degrees in a wide range of subject areas so it is never too late to study another language (and then to develop it fully by spending an exchange year at a Continental university as part of the degree programme). Many students have benefited from this opportunity through the Erasmus programme and usually spend the third year of a four- year course abroad. They frequently return with a much higher level of motivation for their academic studies and often move on to jobs with a distinct international perspective.

My subject area is physics, where there is a mobility network covering over 190 institutions in Europe. There is a strong demand for places in the UK from European students but, predictably, there is a great shortage of British students wanting to go abroad. Furthermore the imbalance in the student flow pattern will eventually lead to restrictions in the number of incoming European students, and Britain will once again become isolated from European activities. The long-term consequences are only too plain to see - our graduates will be seen as incompletely educated within the European context and will be disadvantaged in the international jobs market unless the current trends can be reversed.

John Dore

European Mobility Scheme for Physics Students

(Professor of Condensed Matter Physics, University of Kent)

Privilege and brain

Maybe the pessimists are right: the British university degree has been devalued. This happens whenever a marketplace becomes saturated. It does not follow that the quality of the goods has fallen.

While there are valid concerns about pressure on universities to show good results, it isn't that remarkable, as the president of the AUT suggests, to find standards improving as university numbers rise. So many people enter the jobs market with degrees now that the degree by itself does not represent much of a distinction, as it did when only a privileged minority went to university. Nowadays the class of your degree is the distinguishing factor in what is quickly becoming a "standard" education.

I graduated from York in 1994. Comparisons can be drawn between students of now and 20 years ago. But they should pay at least as much attention to the market pressures on students as to the market pressures on universities. Employers nowadays can pick from a pool of well-educated potential employees which in 1976 they could barely have imagined. If we subscribe to the view that higher student numbers must depress degree standards we implicitly buy into the belief that 20 years ago all those men and women who went to work at 16 were less intelligent than those who went to university. That view might be comforting to a self-styled elite. The reality is that privilege does not, and never did, equal intellect.

David Clifford



Total overhaul

With reference to your article "Action sought on degree standards" (24 October), I question whether reviewing or even revising the classification system for degrees will actually change very much. The fact that so many university students do not have the skills to achieve a good degree - under the present system - must be taken into consideration. Until we overhaul the current educational structures, which are meant to facilitate the earlier years in education, we will not see university students with either the intellectual agility to advance within an academic career or the skills and knowledge which would enable them to compete in the international job market.

Rosalin Cul

Cambridge CBJ 35D

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