Brighter future for language courses

Euan McTear & Rosannah Jones

Scottish universities will find it more difficult to cut language courses following a new measure in University Outcome Agreements, which means that the final decision on any course closures will now rest with the Scottish Funding Council (SFC).

The SFC is the body which distributes higher education funding for Scotland and the recent move, designed to protect the future of modern languages, appears in its most recent guidelines. The guidelines lay out what higher education institutions in Scotland are expected to provide in return for the estimated £1 billion public funding they receive.

In 2011, the uncertain future of Glasgow University’s Eastern European languages courses – a specialism of the University – saw over 50 students and staff members from the universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde travel to the Scottish Parliament with a 3000-strong petition. It protested against the proposed cuts to courses including Czech, Polish, Russian and Slavonic studies. Over 2,000 also attended a protest march on the issue on Glasgow University campus.

The Glasgow University Court decided, however, to go against the judgement of the University Senate that certain language courses should be continued. Czech and Polish were cut at Glasgow University in 2010, and Slavonic Studies was removed the following year.

Under the new guidelines, the final decision would have been left to the SFC. The new measures mean that before a university is permitted to close a particular language course, the SFC will consider whether the proposed closure would seriously reduce the range of languages taught across Scotland, as well as taking into account the long-term economic benefit of the particular language to Scotland’s future.

The introduction of this new measure has been praised by language lecturers across the country. Dr Jan Čulík, a senior Czech lecturer at the University who organised the 2011 petition to the Scottish Parliament , said of the new measure: “Glasgow is the only university in Scotland where these courses [Czech and Polish], which can lead to lucrative employment, are available. It is to be hoped that the SFC will make sure that they will not disappear in Scotland. If they did, it would damage job prospects of graduates in this country.”

Hugh McMahon, a former MEP, spoke at the Scottish Parliament when the petition was presented two years ago and quoted figures from a European recruitment site which detailed 91 vacancies for graduates of Russian, 93 for Polish and 88 vacancies for those with degrees in Czech.  A recent poll of top UK businessmen in the Daily Telegraph even put Polish as the fifth most sought after language qualification in the country.

The SFC announcement to protect courses could see Scotland take the lead in providing Eastern European languages. The move to protect courses comes just a month after Professor Mike Kelly, a former adviser to the Department for Education, claimed that 40% of university language departments across the UK face closure within the next 10 years.

Universities have been forced to battle an ever declining number of applications for the study of modern languages. The number of UK universities offering modern language degrees fell from 105 in 2000 to 62 in 2013, but it is now hoped that the new SFC measures will see that dramatic fall stabilise in Scotland.

Glasgow University currently has 1500 language students and around 40 teaching and research staff, with undergraduate degree programmes available in French, Spanish, Hispanic Studies, Italian, German and Russian. Czech and Polish are still available at Glasgow for at least two years, while postgraduate study of these language and culture areas is also still available.

The language courses on offer are also credited with having high student satisfaction rates – at 92% for course satisfaction and 94% for teaching satisfaction.

Second year Spanish and Italian student, Cara Halliday, commented on why she thought this was: “The class sizes in lectures are relatively small and language students benefit from this close interaction. Language degree programmes at Glasgow are also flexible in allowing a number of languages to be taken at beginner level and this can be combined with advanced level courses enabling you to refine your skills in improving at a language you already know whilst also being taught how best to learn a language for the first time.”

The 2013 Guardian University Guide ranked Glasgow University as number 2 in Scotland and number 8 in the UK for modern languages.