A former British government adviser charged with bolstering foreign language uptake in higher education has disclosed that the number of universities offering modern languages degrees dropped from 105 in 2000 to 62 at start of this academic year.
Professor Mike Kelly, a former adviser on the Department for Education's steering group on languages, has warned that 40% of university language departments are expected to close within a decade, according to Daniel Boffey of The Guardian. Kelly currently is head of the government-funded Routes into Languages programme coordinating attempts to increase the number of language degrees in England.
The rate of attrition is expected to continue into the next decade. A further 20 departments will be vulnerable to closure in the next 10 years, but there is growing concern that the pace of decline is set to quicken, according to Kelly.
In England, there are huge areas being left without any degree-level language courses. Also, the number of language teachers in schools is dropping in the country, which is no surprise since A-level candidates for French and German fell by 50% between 1996 and 2012.
This crisis is delivering a blow to the UK's diplomatic and economic hopes, and the British government is concerned.
The British Chamber of Commerce said it feared a "potentially disastrous" impact on the UK's export potential when David Cameron has ordered a doubling of trade with the wider world. Even the government's ability to reform the EU over the long term is being set back, with just 3% of European bureaucrats being British despite the UK contributing 11% of Europe's population.
The Foreign Office is also worried about the future of its diplomatic corps with senior figures privately voicing urgent concerns about the standard of its graduate recruits. The department has built its own languages school and is spending £1m a year to bring the civil service up to scratch.
Kelly, a professor of French at Southampton University, said: "British graduates are not being employed in the key European institutions and one of the reasons is you need two foreign languages. There is a lot of concern. The danger is that the pace of reduction of university language departments will increase for two reasons: the number taking A-level [languages] has dipped quite sharply and those recruiting successfully are being encouraged to take on more students, so fewer students are available for struggling departments."
In last 12 months, the universities of West of England, Staffordshire and Bolton have closed their language departments. The University of Salford announced that it will also close its department.
According to Kelly, what caused the collapse in the popularity of languages was a decision in 2002 to make the subject optional at the GCSE level. He also cited political and cultural change in the UK as both a cause and a symptom of a growing contempt for foreign cultures: "There is an increased parochialism. General xenophobia doesn't help."