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Language skills shortage will see UK students miss out in global higher education market, warns UCU

5 August 2007 | last updated: 14 December 2015

UCU today warned that UK students in the future may be among the biggest casualties of increased internationalism in higher education.

Commenting on the Education and Skills Select Committee's report 'The future sustainability of the higher education sector: international aspects', the union warned that an increase in domestic university fees, coupled with a lack of modern languages departments, could see home students' choices of where to study severely restricted.

The report says that 'to maximise the benefits of international education, student flows need to be two way'. However, the report also recognises the need for a 'concerted drive to improve foreign language capacity'.

UCU worries that choices of foreign study for many home students would be restricted to English-speaking countries because of the lack of foreign language provision in the UK. It also is concerned that limiting home students to studying in English-speaking countries such as Australia and America would do little to lower students' collective carbon footprint.

Recent UCU research revealed that that there have been dramatic falls in the number of UK universities offering modern languages. The number of higher education institutions offering French has fallen by 15 per cent over the last decade, institutions providing German have dropped by a quarter (25 per cent) and institutions offering Italian have fallen by nine per cent.

UCU believes that the government's decision in 2004 to make languages at GCSE non-compulsory could reduce still further the number of institutions providing courses in these languages. Already the number of pupils taking French and German at GCSE has dropped sharply.

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: 'The widespread closure of modern language courses is leading to students facing restricted choices if they want to study languages in the UK. We need to be encouraging future linguists, especially as future researchers and teachers. Without those teachers we will witness a terminal decline in people studying languages, which will damage our civil society and impact on how we interact with the rest of the world.

'The international higher education sector of the future may well see greater mobility between countries and it will be vitally important that the UK remains an attractive place to work and study. Universities in this country must recognise that in their push for the market some home students will look for cheaper options abroad.

'UCU is also conscious of the challenges posed by the Bologna Process, which envisages a greater mobility of students and staff alike within a wider European higher education area. With international mobility comes a whole of host of difficulties for staff and students working or studying in other countries. Language differences will be a key issue as will things like different employment practices, pension arrangements and salary levels.'