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Number of students accepted on to language degrees drops by more than third

By Eleanor Busby

The number of students accepted on to modern language degree courses has fallen by more than a third over nearly a decade, data shows.

The drop in demand comes at the same time as a decline in the uptake of languages at A-level, according to the universities admissions service.

Ucas has warned that the fall in students who have been accepted to study the subject at university “could exacerbate” the language skills gap post-Brexit.

It comes as new subject data from Ucas shows a significant shift towards technology-based degrees, with more students accepted on to engineering and computer science subjects over the past decade.

The release of the 2020 cycle figures reveals the popularity of Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is not waning, with more students opting for newer artificial intelligence (AI) courses each year.

Acceptances to computer science courses have risen by 47% in nine years – from 20,420 in 2011 to 30,090 in 2020, while acceptances to engineering courses have increased by 21% over the same period.

But humanities subjects – including English studies and history and philosophical studies – have decreased in popularity among prospective university students over the last decade.

And acceptances to modern language courses have fallen by 36%, from 6,005 in 2011 to 3,830 in 2020, the report says.

The data also shows that the demand for nursing places is now almost at the same level as a decade ago – despite the removal of NHS bursaries in 2017.

With the expansion of medical places in the last few years, acceptances to medicine courses are at the highest level on record, the analysis suggests.

Clare Marchant, Ucas’ chief executive, said it was pleasing to see students responding to “economic cues” – with increased demand for Stem subjects – and to see them “inspired by the work of the NHS”.

But she added: “The decline in acceptances to languages could exacerbate the languages skills gap in the wake of Brexit, therefore it is important that action is taken to promote the benefits of languages across the education sector.”

Vicky Gough, schools adviser at the British Council, called the data on the uptake of languages at higher education “disappointing”.

She said: “There has never been a more crucial time for the UK to recognise the significant role of languages in effective diplomacy, security and international collaboration.

“We need to encourage more school pupils to consider languages as an attractive and valuable option for future study and business.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), added: “The slump in foreign languages is of real concern, particularly in a post-Brexit economy when linguists will clearly be needed for international relations and trade.

“This feeds through from a decline in language take-up in schools which has happened because of teacher shortages, funding pressures, and pupil perceptions that these are difficult subjects which are graded severely and that English is a lingua franca.”

Mr Barton warned: “We really do need a national languages strategy or we’ll end up becoming an entirely monolingual society at exactly the time when we need to be more outward facing.”

A UK Department for Education spokeswoman said: “We want our higher education to support the economy and skills our country needs and it is great to see the growing popularity in Stem subjects like engineering and computer science.

“We are committed to ensuring more pupils are studying languages, which is why the Government introduced languages into the national curriculum for primary schools for the first time in 2014.

“We are also funding almost £5 million in a pilot programme which aims to increase the number of pupils studying languages at Key Stages 3 and 4 and provide support for teachers.”


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