Tag Archives: Students

Mind Your Language(s)

To quote Yogi Berra, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” At least when it comes to reports of the demise of foreign language teaching.

UK universities are “abandoning” European language courses, according to the Guardian. Over the past 15 years, more than a third have “given up offering specialist modern language degrees.”

The same figure was quoted in a remarkably similar article just two months ago when the Guardian warned that 40% of existing university language departments could soon be closed.

Both pieces quote academics worried about the state of language teaching in schools.

First they blamed Labour’s (admittedly foolish) decision in 2002 to scrap compulsory foreign language GCSEs, which made a steep decline in numbers taking language exams inevitable. But that decline has now been reversed.  According to the universities minister David Willets, foreign language learning at GCSE is at its highest level in five years.

So now the blame’s being pinned on over-rigorous A level marking. “Unfair” grading is putting off gifted linguists. Apparently the best and the brightest are dropping German like hot kartoffeln and saying non merci to French as soon as they’ve done those GCSEs.

But what about the departments offering those “specialist” European language degrees? They must take some responsibility for their own predicament.

University College London enthusiastically offers an “emphasis on film and literature studies” in its list of “degree benefits” if you study there for a French BA.

At Oxford you have the pleasure of “prose and drama from 1890 to 1933” as a compulsory first year subject for a German degree.

These are wonderful, fascinating subjects in their own ways and I’m all for university being a great place to expand cultural horizons.

But in an era of £9,000-a-year fees and diminishing graduate employment prospects, these institutions might want to re-think the content of their “specialist” degrees.

Because buried deep in that Guardian article about the “abandoned” European language degrees is some rather more positive news.

There’s evidence that students are still signing up for languages when they’re linked with another subject. Numbers studying “law and French or business studies and Spanish are stable” the article says.

Similarly, students are still interested in taking language modules as additions to their main subjects.

Chinese (Mandarin) while studied by relatively small numbers is growing rapidly in popularity. And the government’s backing a British Council campaign to send 15,000 British students to study or gain work experience in China by 2016.

Russian and Arabic departments are still going strong and there’s a continuing niche market in Japanese.

It would be great if, as with my generation, the state would fund young people to stay on in education for the sheer pleasure of learning and broadening the mind.

But those days are gone. Students go through University racking up debt. If they can see employment benefits of studying a language then they’ll do so.

“Specialist” language departments should take note and stop blaming our schools.



Lessons from the Library

There are few things we British love more than to see one of our elite institutions with egg on its face.

So of course news that an Oxford college is at the centre of a “Harlem Shake Scandal” has made national headlines. (Full disclosure: it’s of more than passing interest to me as it concerns my old college).

But I made some inquiries, and the story’s not quite as it at first seems.

To recap: A group of students took over the library at St Hilda’s and recorded their version of the now rather passé meme doing the rounds on YouTube.

So far, so vaguely humourous. But then it emerged that not only had participating students been disciplined, the young library assistant on duty that night had lost her job.

“Dismissed”, “fired” – however it was reported, the punishment sounded harsh. Especially as the students insisted that the woman, Calypso Nash, had nothing to do with the stunt.

Cue furious demands for her immediate reinstatement. An online petition was followed by a motion passed by the undergraduate body, the JCR. There was even an Early Day Motion tabled in Parliament.

I found it hard to believe. And sure enough, there were some key details missing from the coverage – which the College did nothing to clarify while the story was gathering steam. “Declined to comment” was the line most newspapers used.

Ms Nash was not a “librarian” and she was not on the staff. She’s a post-graduate student who was employed on a casual basis as a library invigilator.

After the Harlem Shake incident she was told she wouldn’t be offered any more shifts. A bit harsh perhaps but not quite the same as being “fired” from a job, and, though nothing’s been heard from her, I’m told she has not appealed.

If the college had said that at the beginning it might have defused the protest. I gather they’re about to make a statement to that effect.  Horses and stable doors come to mind…

It still leaves questions about the overall handling of the incident. No students were harmed in the making of that 30 second video and I doubt any degrees will be failed as a result.

It was recorded late in the evening, and in a spirit of fun.  It even had an admirable political message: a banner demanding freedom for the jailed Russian women from the band Pussy Riot.

The students could have been told to do a morning’s filing, or picking up litter or carrying books back to shelves. Something for their community as a way of the college authorities saying gently, “don’t do that again.”  As for Ms Nash, if the rest of her work in the library is okay then of course she should be offered more shifts.

The college should learn to be a little less po-faced and a little more communicative with the media, not to mention with its own student body.

And MPs lodging Early Day Motions should perhaps check their facts.