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October 2009/41 (web only)
Issues paper

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Review of Modern Foreign Languages provision in higher education in England
By Professor Michael Worton, Vice-Provost, University College London

This review of the health of Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) in English higher education was commissioned by HEFCE in response to concerns about falling numbers and funding provision. It surveys current trends and makes recommendations to ensure the long-term sustainability and vitality of MFL provision.

To: Heads of HEFCE-funded institutions
Heads of further education colleges directly funded by HEFCE
Of interest to those responsible for: Senior management teams, languages departments and centres
Reference: 2009/41
Publication date: October 2009
Enquiries to: Davina Benton
tel 0117 9317480

Table of contents and executive summary (read online)


Main report

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Please note that the following amendments were made in November and December 2009:
Various names added to Appendix C.

Executive summary

1.   This review of the health of Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) in English higher education (HE) was commissioned by HEFCE in response to concerns about falling numbers and funding provision. Drawing on a range of data, it surveys current trends and makes a series of recommendations to ensure the long-term sustainability and vitality of MFL provision in HE.

Policy and developments: the national context

2.   This section explores the financial, political and educational contexts in which MFL in UK HE is currently operating.

3. Over the last decade, Government and other agencies have supported a number of initiatives to provide financial support and innovation funding to the academic MFL community, including £41.5m of new investment from HEFCE and other agencies for languages between 2005 and 2012.

4.   Following the Government’s 2002 decision to make languages optional for pupils after the age of 14, there has been a sharp decline in the numbers of pupils studying a language to GCSE, particularly in the state sector; this decline now appears to have levelled out, although take-up post-14 remains low. In the longer term, the Government’s decision to make languages compulsory for all seven year olds from 2011 should help to create more linguistically and culturally aware young people who want to study languages at university. Nevertheless, universities need to be realistic in planning for the impact on their own provision of recent policy decisions at primary and secondary level.

5.   HE featured less prominently than other sectors in the National Languages Strategy, and there has been insufficient ‘joined up’ thinking about the role of foreign languages in the UK over the past decade; there remains no sense nationally or internationally that the UK is committed to multilingualism and thereby to informed cultural interactions. It is also a concern that, despite significant investment in languages, the languages community sees its future health as dependent on additional funding from external bodies, rather than on its own actions.

Languages in HE: facts and figures

6.   This section of the Review considers the quantitative data available from a range of sources, including the Higher Education Statistics Agency, UCAS, HEFCE and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

7.   While it is important to consider broad trends, the overall picture conceals many individual differences for individual languages. There is no uniform trend with regard to student numbers, for example: an overall 5% decline in numbers masks growth in Asian, Modern Middle Eastern and African and Iberian Studies. Similarly, home and overseas student numbers are declining, but EU students are up 13%. The numbers of academic staff in MFL Departments are generally falling, but, surprisingly, this seems to be in areas where student interest is rising.

8.   It is difficult to establish how many non-specialist linguists are studying a language alongside their degree programme; estimates suggest that there are at least as many non-specialists studying a language at universities as there are students on Modern Foreign Language degree programmes.

9.   Research funding is the greatest source of current anxiety; there is also a widespread perception that language disciplines performed less well than other disciplines in the Research Assessment Exercise. However, the proportion of submitted staff in the language disciplines did not rise as it did in other areas and this inevitably resulted in a reduction in funding reflecting their declining share of fundable research volume. Nonetheless, the average real terms increase in grant per fundable active researcher was 10% across all disciplines, and the aggregated languages and foreign studies group also received a 10% increase per researcher.

10.   Additionally, while the protection given to science, technology, engineering, medicine and mathematics (STEMM) disciplines appears to amount to an 11% cut in funding for languages, the STEMM protection greatly benefits the pre-1992 universities, where the majority of MFL Departments are located. There is therefore scope for MFL colleagues in institutions to persuade their own institutions of the importance of their work and thereby to secure continued investment in them.

11.   The AHRC block grant system will mean that the number of doctoral awards available for MFL from 2008-9 is greater than the number of awards made in 2007-8 through open competition.

Languages in HE: a snapshot of the discipline

12.   To inform the review, responses were invited to three discrete online questionnaires, each aimed at a particular constituency within languages in HE. The results of this exercise serve as a snapshot of the current health of the discipline and as comparative data which can be tested against the quantitative data in the previous section.

13.   The consultation revealed a community which feels itself to be vulnerable – and, indeed, beleaguered. There is a strong sense that the importance and the value of languages are not properly understood and recognised either by Government or by potential students. It was also clear that different language groups, and, indeed, different disciplinary groups, often argue from different perspectives and with different views of the future.

14.   Modern Foreign Languages Departments: Programme content is changing, with a pronounced increase in contemporary cultural studies. Several Departments reported an increase in the number of courses which are accessible to non-linguists (e.g. texts in translation). Respondents tended to note concerns about the quality and preparedness of students, rather than focusing on difficulties in recruiting per se. Several institutions have added new languages to their provision, to a certain extent prompted by engagement with the needs of their local communities. Nonetheless, overall, there is a sense that Modern Foreign Language Departments tend to respond reactively, rather than innovative pro-actively.

15.   There is scope for further development of existing models for teaching collaborations between Departments and institutions, and for closer collaborations across disciplines. There is some evidence of innovation in delivery, including through the use of new technologies.

16.   The two most common research challenges were the perceived lack of funding for languages research (which suggests a need for greater understanding across the sector about the context for funding allocations) and the tensions between research, teaching and administration within Departments/Schools. A number of respondents were also concerned about the difficulty of measuring ‘impact’ in MFL research, as the Research Excellence Framework looms ahead.

17.   There was no consensus amongst respondents as to the future of ‘the discipline’; indeed, one of the most significant outcomes of the consultation was the number of respondents who wished to stress the disadvantages of presenting or thinking of MFL as a collective discipline, given the differences between the specific premises and practices of different languages.

18.   Language Centres: There is considerable diversity across the sector, and the customer base is broad, presenting significant challenges in terms of teaching and organisation. There is no single model of provision and no uniform model for the relationship between Language Centre Departments and the academic MFL Departments. A recurring theme was the need to challenge the ‘false dichotomy’ which exists between Language Centres (erroneously perceived as teaching only language skills) and academic departments (who define themselves as teaching language through content and culture). Reflecting considerable optimism across the Language Centre sector, most respondents felt that their Language Centre was strong and would remain so.

19.   Subject Associations: The main issue raised by Subject Associations related to funding, both for teaching and research. This group also wished to stress the implications of MFL being more of an undergraduate subject than many other humanities disciplines – for income levels, staffing, departmental profile and research activities.


20.   While there is a great deal of understandable anxiety amongst the MFL community, there is also a tendency to argue for sustainable salvation through ever more investment in teaching, research and widening participation/outreach activities. The evidence shows, however, that there has been and continues to be substantial investment in languages activities.

21.   Continued strategic investment will undoubtedly be essential for the next few years. However, it is vital that universities themselves take action. Much is rightly made of the autonomy of universities in the UK; now is the moment for the languages sector to embrace that autonomy as a creative and enabling force. This includes the development of a clear and compelling identity for Modern Foreign Languages in an increasingly competitive higher education context, one which presents a convincing case for the contribution that Languages Departments make to the strategic objectives of their institutions and more widely. Crucially, Vice-Chancellors and senior management teams should provide sufficient funding to allow them to develop in ways which are appropriate to the institutional context.

22.   The languages community and university leaders need pro-actively to establish and maintain dialogue with Government and major funders and stakeholders about how the study and research of foreign languages can respond to current and future challenges and to the needs of increasingly complex markets. It is vital for the long-term future of MFL in higher education that the Government’s expectations of language learning in primary and secondary schools are met.

23. The Review’s recommendations can be found at paragraphs 206 to 228.