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Continuous drop in language degree courses at British universities: What causes the decline and why there is some reason for hope

A new analysis, undertaken by Education Guardian, shows that the trend of UK universities to close down Modern Languages (ML) departments continues. The analysis demonstrates that many universities closed down their ML departments over the past 15 years and that this trend has even accelerated since 2007. Compared to six years ago, today there are 29 % fewer universities that offer courses in French and German, 15 % fewer for Italian and even the number of Spanish courses, which fared well between 1998 and 2007, dropped significantly.

As part of this trend, specialist language degrees also become increasingly elitist concentrating at the UK’s Russell Group universities. As a result, they become less accessible to students enrolling at less selective institutions.

Reasons for the decline

The reason why it is so difficult to reverse the decline of ML departments is that a wide range of factors come into play. These are some of the most significant reasons for the current state of languages in the UK:

  • The decision of the Labour government to drop languages as a compulsory subject at key stage 4 (when pupils are around 14 years old). As a result, the number of pupils taking traditional modern language subjects at A-level dropped to its lowest level since the mid-1990s. This has immediate consequences for language departments at university level, which compete for fewer and fewer students with post-A-level language qualifications.
  • Language departments tend to be more expensive to run than other Humanities subjects, given that they usually offer a large amount of contact hours to deliver language teaching. They also require comparatively high levels of staffing since ML departments consist of smaller language units which all need their specialist staff.
  • The new fee regime in England, which was introduced in 2012/13 and allows universities to charge fees of up to GBP 9 000, exacerbates the problem. While ML departments previously received extra funding in recognition of the fact that they are expensive to run, they now generate the same fee income for universities as other Humanities subjects while incurring higher costs. This makes them an easy target when universities are looking for potential savings.
  • Modern Languages degrees in the UK typically contain an integrated year abroad and hence consist of four years. This extra year of study potentially deters students from taking up a languages degree due to the additional costs, particularly in light of the considerable debts they accumulate under the new fee regulations. According to the University Council of Modern Languages (UCML), Modern Foreign Languages were hit harder than any other discipline in terms of student recruitment when the new funding regime was introduced in 2012, at a drop of 14%.

Positive signs

While there are many reasons for the decline in Modern Language departments, it is not all doom and gloom for modern languages in the UK in the light of a growing awareness of the problem and a range of measures that have been taken to buck the trend.

  • Languages have been designated as “strategically important and vulnerable subjects” by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) since 2005. In order to promote the study of languages, HEFCE provides funds for the Routes into Languages initiative, consisting of a consortium of 80 universities to encourage collaboration between higher education, schools and employers.
  • In 2011, the British Academy launched a four-year programme that aims at increasing awareness and demonstrating the importance of languages in the Humanities and Social Sciences.
  • The introduction of the so-called ‘English Baccalaureate’ (EBacc) gives schools an incentive to encourage students to choose a foreign language. The EBacc is a performance measure that recognises where pupils have secured a C grade or better across a core of academic subjects, including a foreign language. 
  • In 2014, foreign languages will become a compulsory part of the curriculum of primary schools, exposing children to language learning from a young age. It has to be said, however, that in order for this initiative to have a sustainable impact beyond primary level, it requires a comprehensive policy that ensures an effective link between primary and secondary level with regards to the languages offered.


In conclusion, the state of Modern Languages in the UK has clearly seen better days, with many languages departments of universities having closed down and with an end to this trend not yet in sight. This is a worrying trend that has led the British Academy to warn of a “vicious circle of monolingualism”. At the same time, as has been shown, there are some encouraging signs, but it will take time until some of these measures are going to have an impact on universities. 


Christian Mossmann

Lecturer in Modern Languages

University of Exeter, UK

For more information about UCML, click here.

For more information about the Guardian/UCAS analysis, click here.