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 Nursing, anthropology, social work, drug misuse research and adult education may be withdrawn.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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Sport
football
Life and Style
Agretti is often compared to its relative, samphire, though is closer in taste to spinach
food + drink
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Kelly Osbourne will play a flight attendant in Sharknado 2
people
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
The dress can be seen in different colours
i100
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
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

WORLDbytes: Two-Day Intensive Camera training and Shoot: Saturday 7th & Sunday 8th March

expenses on shoots: WORLDbytes: Volunteering with a media based charity,for a ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 4 Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: A school in Tameside is currently l...

Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teaching Assistant

£50 - £70 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Tradewind are currently looking for ...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Advisor - OTE £30,000

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?