In common with a number of universities across the country, applications for places in Modern and Foreign Languages at Salford have been declining over recent years. This decline has been exacerbated by the new funding arrangements that were introduced for England in 2010 and subsequently implemented. As a result of these changes, and the continuing economic recession in Britain, the overall size of the Higher Education sector in England has shrunk by about 9% across the full set of subject areas. In many universities, this reduction has been disproportionately felt in Humanities subjects. So-called “middle tariff” universities have been particularly vulnerable to these changes, because these universities seek to maintain their standards of admission while losing students to higher-ranked universities in the Russell Group, many ofwhich have lowered their entry requirements. The University of Salford fits this profile of the “squeezed middle”.
In 2011, the government announced a second major policy shift. This “core and margin” policy removed student places from universities such as ours,reallocating them to low-tariff institutions that could afford to charge lower fee levels. Along with other universities, we were only provided with the details of the number of student places removed from us in early 2012, well into the application cycle for admission in September 2013. Not surprisingly, MFL courses were particularly challenged, because the combination of high tuition fees and the reduced allocation of student places compounded the longer-term trend of decline in student interest in these academic programmes.
Given this accentuated threat to MFL programmes, we took the lead of bringing together a group of universities that are also members of the University Alliance, in order to develop and present the case for MFL support. This group included the universities of Coventry, Portsmouth, Nottingham Trent, OxfordBrookes and Manchester Metropolitan University, and was made up of senior academics in Modern and Foreign Languages. This group was able to develop a full, and compelling, proposal for consideration by our funding body, HEFCE, at the end of January. Following a positive response from HEFCE, the proposals were developed further in February. However, and in the face of other urgent pressures on reduced levels of overall funding, HEFCE has not been able to fund our proposals. The University Alliance paper has been published and is available here:
Some of the key points that are relevant to our decision to phase out MFL teaching, that are set out in this report, are as follows.
Firstly, the impact of the removal of compulsory GCSE study in a foreign language in 2004 is now well understood. There has been a significant decline in language study at both GCSE and A-level. The report noted that more than 75% of KS4 pupils in England sat GCSE examinations in a modern language in 2001 but by2011 this had declined to 40%. The number of those taking MFL A-levels in schools and colleges halved, from 6.4% of all subjects to 3.7% of all subjects, between 1996 and 2011.
This decline has been exacerbated by the increased, and increasing, concentration of language provision in grammar, independent and selective schools. Our Alliance report noted that, by 2011, the proportion of schools where language study is compulsory at KS4 was 82% among independent schools but only 23% in the maintained sector as a whole and only19% for comprehensive schools. At Salford, more than 45% of our undergraduate students are from low-income families or from other widening participation backgrounds, and about half of our students come to us with vocational qualifications, rather than with GCSEs or A-levels. From this, it will be readily apparent that the declining general trend in interest in MFL subjects will be particularly accentuated in student application trends for a university such as ours, that has a particularly significant role in contributing to social and economic mobility.
Turning now to university enrollments, there has been a 4.5% overall drop in the numbers of UK undergraduate students registered for modern languages degree programmes at English universities between 2001 and 2011. In comparison, over this same period overall student numbers in all subjects increased by 5.6%, indicating a relative overall decline of more than 10% in MFL student numbers over the past decade. It is immediately obvious that the timing and scale of this decline matches the decline in A-level choices, and relates back in turn to the decision to scrap compulsory language study at GCSE level in 2004. And, not surprisingly, this has resulted in a marked reduction in the number and extent of MFL academic programmes on offer in the UK. The Alliance report notes that the number of degree programmes in the six principal languages taught in the UK has fallen by 46% since 2003, from 503 to 271.
By March this year, then, it was apparent to us that there would be no additional support for MFL provision, and that the continuing decline in MFL applications to Salford was, and is, part of long and deeply entrenched trend that can be tracked directly to the abolition of compulsory GCSE modern language study almost a decade ago.
This has put us in an invidious position. Based on application levels for admissions in September 2013 and on the subsequent level of acceptances of the offers we have made to prospective MFL students, MFL programmes are no longer financially sustainable in themselves. They share this characteristic with a small number of other programmes in the Humanities, and contrast with levels of student demand for academic programmes in other areas, where there may be stronger levels of demand. Put more simply, at the level of student interest in MFL programmes, projected student income will be insufficient to pay the costs of provision. This is in stark contrast to more than 90% of our academic programmes overall, where student interest either remains strong, or is strengthening.
In contesting this, some have argued that we have a form of national obligation to cross-subsidize MFL teaching. I do not accept this as a reasonable argument. We are a small university with many pressures on our resources, including the pressures that come from being one of Britain’s lead universities in widening participation in higher education. The national interest is the responsibility of government and government policy.
Another counter-argument is that government has signaled the importance of MFL teaching in primary and secondary schools, and this will establish future demand. We welcome and applaud this commitment (if it is implemented). But it will take a decade for this to reverse the long, downward, trend in MFL applications to Britain’s higher education sector as a whole, and we do not have the resources to subsidize MFL provision for this length of time. Again, this is why we worked with six other universities to put the case for a policy-led and funded intervention to make this longer-term strategy feasible.
I understand the dismay that our decision has caused among those passionate about teaching and scholarship in modern languages, and I deeply regret that we have to discontinue our long and proud tradition of work in this area. We have guaranteed that all students will be taught to a continuing high standard through to graduation. I have met with our student leaders and course representatives for MFL programmes to ensurethat we maintain our commitments to our existing students. We have also done all that we can to make government directly aware of the plight of MFL in universities such as ours. But, ultimately, our ability to continue with any academic programme depends on its financial viability, and our continuing to offer MFL academic programmes in the future is not financially viable. Given this, and with regret, we will not be able to reverse the decision we have made.
Vice-Chancellor | Office of the Vice-Chancellor and Registrar
The Old Fire Station, The Crescent, University of Salford, Salford M5 4WT, United Kingdom
t: +44 (0) 161 295 5050