A Statement regarding the closure of the Languages Programme at the University of Sunderland

As representative bodies for language provision in the United Kingdom, the University Council of Modern Languages (UCML) and the Association of University Language Communities in the UK & Ireland (AULC) are dismayed at the news this week from the University of Sunderland that the programmes in Languages, History and Politics are to be closed.

Whilst this decision has been taken in line with a new career-focussed, profession-facing approach that the University of Sunderland is adopting, the withdrawal of support for Languages and broader Humanities subjects at Sunderland in fact undermines this very strategy. The closure of Languages sends a negative signal about the University’s commitment to the professional development of its students, and their preparation for a global employment market place. A number of recent studies and reports have highlighted the critical value of language and inter-cultural competence to this global market-place: Indeed a Higher Education Policy Institute Report released earlier this month emphasises the fact that the UK lags behind other European countries in language learning, and that “language learning […] is a key area that UK higher education should protect and expand” (HEPI report 123, Jan 2020). The withdrawal of support for Languages will mean that there will no longer be an opportunity for staff or students to develop their language competence. This will deprive students of key components of a balanced education.

In the current uncertain national and global climate, withdrawal of support for Languages at Sunderland also flies in the face of overwhelming evidence on the need for the University sector – regionally and nationally – to help close the UK’s ‘language deficit’. The UK government estimates that £48bn or 3.5% of GDP is lost to the economy each year due to poor language skills. The 2017 report from the British Academy, Born Global: the implications for higher education, states: Language study to degree level is of great value to individuals, to the economy and to the cultural and intellectual life of the nation. Yet these benefits are under‑appreciated.The report goes on to explain: Many businesses have a need for the qualities that language graduates can bring to their workforces, a need which is not currently being met. […] as technological change and travel make the world more inter‑connected, the need for people to understand diverse cultures is growing and becoming more urgent, rather than shrinking.

Languages at Sunderland support the regional economy of the north-east, including both international students, who contribute so much to the city, and local students for whom such an education offers the opportunity for global mobility and upskilling. According to the 2014 ERASMUS Impact Study, the study of languages and cultures is demonstrated to improve the soft skills and personal qualities most valued by employers, not only inter-cultural awareness and “a world view”, but also self-confidence, resilience, curiosity, innovation, team-working, decisiveness and a tolerance of ambiguity.

Supporting and developing their language skills is an indicator of an institution’s commitment to its home and international student population, as well as an investment that enhances global reputation and standing. A University with international ambitions, an international work force and an international and mobile student body needs to operate as a multicultural and multilingual organisation. To quote the mission statement from the Language Centre of the University of Zurich: “more languages – more prospects”.

As Chairs of the national representative bodies for Modern Languages, we would urge the University of Sunderland to reconsider the suspension of their language programme. This flies in the face of evidence from and about Higher Education needs and, most importantly, the needs of the U.K.

Claire Gorrara and Mark Critchley

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