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 Nursing, anthropology, social work, drug misuse research and adult education may be withdrawn.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".

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
scotland decidesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping First Minister up at night?
Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
Life and Style
techApple has just launched its latest mobile operating software – so what should you do first?
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Messi in action for Barcelona
filmSo what makes the little man tick?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Sport
Cesc Fabregas celebrates his first Chelsea goal
footballChelsea vs Schalke match report
Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes the hobby look 'dysfunctional', they say
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Maths Teacher

£90 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher (mater...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for an ...

Maths Teacher

£22000 - £37000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: A West Yorkshire School i...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week