Go back

Students lose interest in modern foreign language degrees

Image: sylvar [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Fewer students take languages but admissions data show growth in STEM subjects

Students are shunning languages and humanities subjects and turning to STEM courses instead, data from admissions service Ucas show.

Acceptances for the 2020-21 academic year show that 3,830 students started language degree courses, compared with 6,005 in 2011. Ucas said the fall in demand mirrored “a decrease in language A-level entrants over the same timeframe”.

Several universities have had to close their modern foreign language departments in recent years due to declining student numbers.

Ucas chief executive Clare Marchant said the need for language skills would remain strong after Brexit. “The decline in accepts 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,” she said.

‘Monolingual society’

Commenting on the data Geoff Barton, Association of School and College Leaders, said that “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”.

“The government’s attempts to drive take-up through school performance measures hasn’t worked, and it is clear that a much more considered approach is required based on building a love of languages,” he said.

“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”.

Between 2011-2020, the number of students beginning humanities course also declined. For English studies, the number of new students fell from 10,020 in 2011 to 6,980 in 2020, and from 15,060 in 2011 to 12,870 in 2020 in history and philosophical studies. Ucas said the decline in those courses “seems to be confined to lower and medium tariff providers”.

Last year the British Academy launched a campaign to reverse the decline in students taking humanities subjects.

However, the data showed that the number of students taking science, technology, engineering and maths courses has grown in the last ten years. Those starting computer science courses jumped by more than 50 per cent between 2011-2020, from 20,420 to 30,090, while students beginning engineering courses grew from 25,995 in 2011 to 31,545 in 2020.

The number of students taking artificial intelligence courses, a growing area of study, rose from just 65 in 2011 to 355 in 2020. Ucas said the growth in students taking STEM subjects was “driven by an increase in demand from UK 18-year-olds”.