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Glasgow University could scrap language courses because of budget cuts

Can Britain afford to deprive its students of the linguistic skills that would make them internationally competitive?

Proposals to scrap seven modern languages at the University of Glasgow bring the new education economy sharply into focus. Polish, Czech, Russian, German, Italian, Portuguese and Catalan may be stopped, leaving Glasgow teaching just French and Spanish.

The university management justifies the cuts in terms of financial necessity and strategic importance. But will a "business-oriented" model of higher education give business what it wants? Is there a mismatch between the skills we expect from migrant workers in the UK, and what British workers can offer in return?

Across the country, universities are juggling budgets, tuition fees and proposed new criteria to assess the economic and social impact of research. The University of Glasgow cites a £35m funding gap in the next three years, to be bridged by income from overseas students and cost-cutting. Nursing, anthropology, social work, drug misuse research and adult education may be withdrawn. Modern languages, archaeology, history, classics are earmarked for review.

Academics voiced concern about the consultation process, which is to be led by managers who proposed the cuts, at an extraordinary Senate meeting. Student protesters have been evicted by police. Glasgow is the only university in Scotland offering degree programmes in Polish and Czech, and this work interconnects with social sciences and a publicly funded research network. Not everybody believes the cuts are financially motivated. The School of Modern Languages and Cultures is understood to make an annual surplus of about £2m.

"There's an arrogant, imperialist attitude that what's happening in English is all that matters," said Jan Culik, senior lecturer in Czech studies.

"Lots of English people pontificate about Eastern Europe, and the rest of the world, but they don't understand the discourse. For that, they need to be able to speak the local languages."

So how do the proposed cuts fit into the policy agenda? On the day they were announced, the British Academy launched a document called Language Matters More and More.

"We can no longer assume that English is the global language par excellence – 75 per cent of the world's population do not speak English as their first language," it said.

Most internet pages will be in Chinese within an estimated 20 years. Internet usage in English fell from 51 per cent to 29 per cent between 2000 and 2009. The Higher Education Funding Council for England prioritises both Eastern European studies and foreign languages as "strategically important" and "vulnerable". Yet only four out of 10 state school pupils learn a language at GCSE, compared with eight of 10 in independent schools.

Sarah Bonnell School, a girls' comprehensive and specialist language college in Stratford, east London, is an exception. All pupils choose from Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Latin, Spanish and Urdu at GCSE. More than 70 languages are spoken and any "home language" will be accommodated.

Sinead Earley, the learning area manager, says languages give confidence to speak and present opinions, as well as grammatical tools and vocabulary. She believes damage has been done to language provision, but the pendulum is swinging back.

"The Coalition Government is putting languages back on the map with the English Baccalaureate," she said.

"That makes me hopeful that this will feed through to A-level, which will feed through to university. I just think we have got a bit of a way to go."

The Confederation of British Industry has found that over two-thirds of employers are not happy with young people's foreign language skills and over half see shortfalls in their international cultural awareness. More than 50,000 people from Poland came to work in the UK in 2010. But less than 500 students here gained higher education qualifications in Russian and East European studies last year.

Anna Maria McKeever, founder and director of the British Polish Business Club, says young Polish people are keen to gain English language qualifications to improve job prospects, whereas few British people can relate to Polish culture.

"I am always very impressed with clients, irrespective of their nationality, who greet me in Polish at the beginning of the meeting," she said.

The club offers training on cultural awareness, such as perceptions of time and personal space or how to respond to business and social nuances, as well as proof-reading services. Monika Majewska came to England six years ago, aged 20, and works in a Polish delicatessen in Ealing, west London.

"Some Polish people are going back home now because they don't know English so it's difficult to find work," she said. "I think the language is really important here." Like Katarzyna Bednarska, a beautician, she also speaks Polish for a large proportion of the time. Both followed their partners here.

Renato Gutrai came to England soon after Hungary joined the EU in 2004, hoping to practise his English and fund teacher training. But he has been selling The Big Issue for three years, after being made redundant and homeless.

"A society can't really be multicultural if you don't learn about other people's backgrounds, and you understand better if you speak the language," he said.

"Some people here even know the capital of Hungary, and now travel is cheaper, people go to Hungarian dentists to have their teeth done. But if you really want a multicultural society, you have to be more open."

So there seems to be consensus among employers, teachers and policymakers. Foreign languages may enhance the employability, mobility and competitiveness of the workforce, as well as providing softer skills. There's still a stark contrast between multilingual migrant workers who make a vital contribution to the UK economy, and monolingual Brits who might struggle to find work abroad. And if no one wants to say languages are worthless, the debate about budgets is much more fraught.

Economists may still support spending cuts, rather than revenue generation, to tackle the government deficit, arguing that evidence supports this .But it's also far more expensive to rebuild from scratch a language department that has been destroyed than to keep it ticking over – education is more than a commodity that can be stretched and contracted like an elastic band.

The irony seems to be that a more business-based model for universities is producing a less business-friendly result. If education can't help us deliver on a basic exchange, it will be a long time before students in Glasgow or elsewhere can say "Dobra".