Language degree applications fall
A teenager's chances of winning a place to study languages at a top UK university may be increasing, figures indicate.
A new analysis of Ucas statistics shows that many leading Russell Group universities have seen a sharp drop in applications for European language courses in the last five years.
It comes amid continuing concerns about language learning in schools and universities.
The Press Association's analysis looked at applications made through the main Ucas scheme to study European languages, literature and related courses at the 24 Russell Group universities and the number of acceptances. Would-be students may apply for more than one course.
The findings show that at a number of institutions, the proportion of applications accepted has risen in the last five years.
For example, in 2010, Bristol had 1,860 applications to study European languages, literature and related courses and 290 acceptances - a rate of 15.6%. In 2014, the institution had 1,235 applications and 240 acceptances - 19.4%.
King's College London had 1,165 applications in 2010 and 150 acceptances - 12.9%, and in 2014 there were 575 applications for these courses and 125 acceptances - 21.7%.
At Cambridge, there were 580 European language applications in 2010, and 165 acceptances, a rate of 28.4%, and in 2014 there were 385 applications and 170 acceptances, a rate of 44.2%.
Meanwhile at Oxford, there were 580 applications in 2010 and 165 acceptances - 28.4%, and in 2014 there were 515 applications and 165 acceptances - 32%.
Oxford said that their own admissions figures show an application success rate for modern languages of 31.6% in 2009, 29.1% in 2010 and 33.4% in 2014.
The acceptance figures cover a university offering a place and the student taking it up.
Overall, across all of the 24 Russell Group institutions - including the London School of Economics and Imperial College which did not record any figures for European languages - there were 17,390 applications in 2010 and 2,765 acceptances - a rate of 15.9%.
In 2014 across these universities, there were 14,075 applications and 2,455 acceptances - 17.4%.
Ian Bauckham, headteacher of Bennett Memorial Diocesan School, in Tunbridge Wells, said that the number of applications for European modern foreign language (MFL) courses fell by nearly 20% between 2010 and 2014, meaning that the "reservoir of students" wanting to study languages has fallen markedly in this five-year period.
"Meanwhile, the average acceptance rate, so the proportion of applicants across the sample, who were accepted on to courses, has risen from 15.9% in 2010 to 17.4 % in 2015," he said.
"This is a smaller increase than you might expect from the reduction in the number of applicants, which indicates that the number of available places has almost certainly decreased. However, it is still true to say that it is marginally easier to get into a European language course in 2014 than in 2010, but only marginally.
"However, the biggest concern here is the 20% fall off in applications in five years. If this trend continues for another five years at the same rate then it is easy to see that numbers will have fallen very significantly over a ten-year period. The problem is that there is a 'cliff edge' - small and medium-sized departments will go down beyond the point of sustainability and we will start to lose MFL departments in universities."
Mr Bauckham added that as a result of the English Baccalaureate, there had been until very recently an increase in students taking languages at GCSE, but this had not fed through to A-levels and degree study.
"The conclusion from this is that there is something fundamentally wrong with what we are doing and how we are doing it. More of the same, or more compulsion to do languages at GCSE, will not rectify the problem. Fundamental reassessment of what we are doing is needed. If something is demonstrably not working, you don't carry on doing more of what has already proven itself to be ineffective."
Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said that their universities want to see more students studying languages at GCSE and beyond and offer a wide range of degrees that include the subject.
"If the UK is to engage fully with the wider world in business, diplomacy and academia then many more young people need to be studying languages," she said. "It is a real shame that so many students have missed out on taking languages over the last few years, and we hope to see entries increasing at GCSE and advanced level.
"However, it is important to remember that our universities have high entry requirements and they will only offer places to students who will flourish and succeed on their courses. Admission to university is and should be based on merit, and any decisions about admissions must also maintain high academic standards."
The figures do show that some universities are bucking the trend. For example, Warwick had 615 applications in 2010, the Ucas figures show, and 115 acceptances - 18.7%, and in 2014 there were 670 applications and 85 acceptances - 12.7%.
Professor Sean Hand, of Warwick's school of modern languages and cultures, said: "We have a strong offer for languages".
The institution has links with many overseas universities, and students can take three different languages and there is a strong research base, he said.
A Cambridge University spokesman said: "Cambridge accepts only the brightest and most committed of language students. Our typical entrant for Modern and Medieval Languages holds at least A*AA at A-Level.
"Applicants selected to be interviewed at Cambridge also have to demonstrate exceptional academic potential. To have the best chance of getting into Cambridge, we advise all potential applicants to study hard, read extensively and apply for the subject you love.
"Crude comparisons of admissions data give little sense of relative competition by subject."
Vicky Gough, Schools Adviser at the British Council, said: "It's disappointing to see a general decline in language degree numbers and the apparent lowering of A-level grade entry requirements may be a sign of a further weakening of demand for language degrees.
"However it may also be that universities are recognising that getting top grades in languages at A-level is tough and admissions departments are simply reflecting that in their entry requirements.
"Whatever the cause, languages are vital for the UK's place in the world and we need more people - not less - to learn languages to ensure we remain competitive on the global stage."