Monday, May 23

Fears language qualifications are at risk as Erasmus replacement focuses on UK business agenda Education

The dramatic drop in students pursuing language studies in the UK could accelerate if the government does not fund the year abroad in Europe after next year, universities warn.

Modern language students have to spend their third year studying or working abroad to pass their degree, and academics say this is the main draw of many courses. Now, as the UK no longer participates in the EU Erasmus program, there are fears for the future of the traditional European year abroad and many language courses, and admissions in 2020 are already down 38% from 10 years ago.

Approximately 15,000 British students a year, in all subjects, used Erasmus to travel to universities in Europe for three to 12 months during their career. But Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said earlier this month that Erasmus did not offer “Value for money” for taxpayers.

Instead, the government’s replacement program, the £ 110 million Turing scheme, has a new emphasis on “world” rather than European travel, to countries like Australia or the United States. It’s just a one-year commitment, running from September 2021 to August 2022, leaving a big question mark about placements starting next fall, when those now in their first year of a language course will have to leave. abroad.

Professor Adam Watt, Director of Modern Languages ​​and Cultures at the University of Exeter, a member of the Russell Group, says: “If I am an 18-year-old who is signing up for a BA in languages ​​now, I want to know that I will have a guaranteed place. in one year abroad in two years with financial support. But we cannot make that promise. We cannot confirm that there is definitely a plan. “

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Language degrees have taken a hit, with the number of modern language students more than halving between 2008-9 and 2017-18, and universities fear that the current uncertainty could cause even more serious damage. According to the admissions service, Ucas, 3,830 students were accepted into modern language degrees in 2020, 38% less than 6,165 in 2010. At least nine modern language departments have closed in the last decade.

Professor Adam Watt, photographed next to the wall in Exeter

Professor Adam Watt, director of modern languages ​​at the University of Exeter, says universities cannot promise prospective students a guaranteed year abroad under the current Turing scheme. Photograph: Jim Wileman / The Guardian

With Erasmus, UK universities formed partnerships with specific universities in Europe and agreed to host students from each other. Universities are struggling to strengthen relationships with European institutions that they know their students want to go to, but fear that ties will be broken because no agreements are offered to welcome students.

Claire Gorrara, a French professor at Cardiff University and president of the University Council for Modern Languages, says exchange ties dating back decades are at risk. “These are partnerships of trust built on an equitable and reciprocal relationship. It is not clear to us how we will continue them in the long term, ”he says.

Language scholars say lesser-known institutions can find it particularly difficult to secure places for their students at partner institutions abroad. Some prestigious universities say privately that they will fund the year in Europe for their language students if the government refuses to do so. But academics say that with declining numbers, less wealthy institutions may drop out of courses altogether.

Watt, an expert in French and comparative literature, says his faculty in Exeter has many exchange partnerships with universities across Europe and is racing to find out if there is “any way [we] you can have an understanding with them. ” But, he says, “it’s an immensely tough sell when we can’t offer them a package for the students who come here.”

He says that with Erasmus, home students saw a student from abroad in their seminar and realized that the following year they would be in his place, sitting in a foreign classroom trying to fit in, which made them think differently about the “attitudes towards otherness”. and the need to be hospitable.

Like most academics in his field, Watt insists that the year abroad is mandatory for good reason. “Students who choose to study a language course say that ‘the year abroad is what attracted me,’ and students who finish a degree in languages ​​say ‘it was what I enjoyed the most,’” he says. “It’s about language proficiency, but it’s also about self-confidence, resilience and independence.”

However, since funding and partnerships are no longer guaranteed, Watt says there are fears at some universities that language degrees will have to be cut to three years, with only one period abroad. This idea is “very unpopular” with academics, who think it would be much less effective.

Kate Suffolk, sophomore Spanish at the University of Warwick

Kate Suffolk says working-class students will be hit the hardest

“Students will be strongly encouraged to spend time abroad during their vacations,” he adds. “But of course you can only vacation abroad if you can afford it, so that would have huge implications.”

Kate Suffolk, a sophomore Spanish at the University of Warwick, says that working-class students are already at a disadvantage, and this would make it worse. “I went to a public school where not many people went to college and I was very proud of myself for entering a Russell group college. But I soon realized that things are not the same when you get here. Other students could afford to go to Spain in the summer and improve their language, but I had to do a full-time job at home. “

Suffolk, who plans to complete her year abroad in September and has places to study at the universities of Malaga and Valencia, firmly believes that a short stay abroad would not be enough to obtain a degree in languages. “How would you properly immerse yourself, make friends, and get to know the locals and the culture in just one period?”

Academics say the new Turing website He hardly mentions improving language skills. Instead, the scheme is promoting ties to countries outside of Europe as part of the post-Brexit government’s vision of a “global Britain.” Many people fear that the government wants students to leave Spain or Germany in favor of potential business partners, such as Australia or the United States.

Dr Sam Coombes, Senior Lecturer in French at the University of Edinburgh, is depressed by the implications of the new rhetoric. “There is fear among academics that there are fewer candidates for modern European language degrees due to Brexit and this general environment of negative sentiment towards the European Union.”

It is not just language scholars who are concerned about the Turing scheme. Jim Murdoch, a professor of public law at the University of Glasgow, says the government is using the scheme to help build ties with target countries to advance its own post-Brexit trade agenda. “Turing is not primarily about the needs of the students,” he says. “Decisions about study destinations should be for academic areas and not for politicians.”

On the day the Berlin Wall fell, Murdoch was visiting Germany to establish the first Erasmus exchange association for the law school; Since then, the fact that 60% of Glasgow law students take an Erasmus year abroad has become a “real selling point” for prospective students. He says that studying in another European country is more “culturally relevant” than in another English-speaking country, as well as being more demanding. “When they come back, their increased self-confidence as apprentices is quite remarkable,” he says.

He adds: “I remind students that Australia is Great Britain with sunshine. Spending a year in Sydney would be a valuable experience, but it wouldn’t be that challenging. “

Professor Anton Muscatelli, Vice Chancellor of Glasgow, says: “We have relations with English-speaking countries anyway, so it’s not like that is missing.”

Scotland’s Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon has called the UK’s withdrawal from Erasmus “cultural vandalism.” The Scottish government, along with Wales, tried to stay in the scheme, but earlier this week the EU president, Ursula von der Leyen, announced that as a “constituent nation” of the United Kingdom, Scotland could not participate.

Muscatelli says the University of Glasgow will continue to offer language students a year abroad. “We will have to do it ourselves if the funds are not available.”

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