Further threats to university survival have emerged as a knock-on effect of the government’s scheme to raise tuition fees in England to £9000, as it has become clear that many language courses may have to be discontinued. Universities have pointed out that with the extra year abroad taken as part of most language courses, students would be required to pay up to £36,000 for their degree, a step many may not be willing to take.

Language Courses will cost more

With rocketing fees, the price of courses will be far more important than ever before in determining a student’s choice of university and subject, and the University Council for Modern Languages believes subjects such as French, Spanish and German simply will not be able to compete with shorter, cheaper courses. Where before a student may well have been willing to pay the relatively modest £3000 sum for the benefits and cultural opportunities of an extra year’s study abroad, it is thought that now, with the price trebled and the interest rate raised, the prospect will be hugely off-putting to prospective students.

Plea for Government Fee Waiver

The University Council for Modern Languages, chaired by Professor James Coleman, has written to the government via Universities Minister David Willetts to request an urgent waiver of fees for language students for the year they spend studying abroad. The government has responded by ordering a review of support for the subjects, with the Higher Education Funding Council for England undertaking a study of what extra support may be necessary, but these findings will not be published until the autumn, potentially leaving hundreds of thousands of perspective students in the dark about funding as they try to make choices for their university applications later this year.

Impact on Universities

Coleman foresees a devastating impact on the numbers of applicants for modern language courses as a result, and has urged that “The government urgently needs to make a statement that they will support a year abroad and to moderate the impact of higher fees.” Other institutions are more pessimistic – the University of the West of England has already taken steps towards a decision to stop providing all language courses altogether.

But the issue doesn’t end there. Even should the government choose to rescue language courses by allocating extra funding to cover the year abroad, there will be a multitude of courses ready to follow suit with similar problems. And they will not all be lucky enough to be allocated extra support. Courses as diverse as architecture, engineering, medicine, veterinary science and biochemistry all involve extra years of study on top of the standard 3 year degree course, and all stand to suffer from the same disadvantage.

Furthermore, there are many other courses, like chemistry at Bristol University, where a year’s extra study abroad is included and encouraged as an opportunity to broaden students’ horizons and introduce them to entirely new fields of learning and exploration. Some of the more mainstream courses may be lucky enough to obtain a government waiver, but with most universities heading for £9000 fees and the government budget for student loans stretched precariously thin, it is likely that many will be left to suffer the consequences unaided.

Potential Outcomes

So what will be the impact of this squeeze on four year courses? There are several possibilities. The first is that the fallout may not be as serious as universities fear- with hundreds of thousands of applicants not managing to gain a place at any university last year, it is possible that the demand for available places will remain high enough to sustain these courses in spite of their sky-high price tags. Or perhaps these courses, reputed to be less competitive due to their higher cost, will become the vestige of the academically challenged upper class private school graduates whose parents are willing to pay any cost to make sure they get in somewhere. This could result in the sort of two-tier class education system feared by many activists protesting agains the rising tuition fees. Another possibility is that the universities themselves will have to cover the cost – Essex University has already announced plans to fund a fee waiver for the year abroad out of its own pocket. But given the huge cuts to university and teaching budgets this would inevitably result in losses and down-grading elsewhere.

The problem may result in many universities simply withdrawing the year abroad from the course altogether, or offering it as an optional but not compulsory extra. There are many who would welcome this development as a financially sensible curtailment of an unnecessary and frivolous opportunity for students to abandon their studies and gallivant abroad – it is no accident that the extra year is nicknamed a “year out”. But they are short-sighted. To complete a three year language degree without spending a substantial period of time immersed in the culture and dialect of the country one is studying is like learning medicine without ever setting foot in the dissection lab. The quality and academic strength of our language graduates will suffer as a result. In the same way, across the board, as ‘non-essential’ subjects like arts, cultural and non-vocational courses are sacrificed to the brutality of these cuts, England will feel the impact and suffer their loss most severely in the long term.