How many people are studying for a degree languages in higher education? Does it really matter? Of course it matters a great deal to people who work in language departments. It also matters a great deal if we are to increase the number of students choosing to study languages at university.
Usually, when we talk about numbers studying each language we are presented with a table like the below. This tells us how many students are studying each language/ area study. These are the HESA stats for 2009/10:
(R1) French studies Total 14643
(R2) German studies Total 5247
(R3) Italian studies Total 2386
(R4) Spanish studies Total 9961
(R5) Portuguese studies Total 592
(R6) Scandinavian studies Total 98
(R7) Russian & East European studies Total 1829
(R8) European Studies Total 1538
(R9) Others in European languages, lit & related subjects 7816
(T1) Chinese studies Total 1374
(T2) Japanese studies Total 1253
(T3) South Asian studies Total 223
(T4) Other Asian studies Total 407
(T5) African studies Total 235
(T6) Modern Middle Eastern studies Total 1224
(T7) American studies Total 3763
(T8) Australasian studies Total 21
(T9) Others in Eastern, Asiatic, African, American & Australasian lang, lit & related subs Total 259
Table 1 tells us the number of the individual language learning experiences. However, this does not tell us how much of the language each student is studying.
- Table 1 does not tell us how many of the students are studying single honours French (100%) and how many are doing the language for 75%, 50%, 33% or 10% of their time. All other things being equal (though they rarely are) and assuming a direct relationship between student numbers and departmental income a student who studies a language 100% of the time will bring in three times as much funding a student who studies a language for 33.33% and ten times as much as a student who is studying a language for 10%.
- Moreover it does not tell us how many students are studying languages as those studying two languages will be counted twice and those studying three languages three times.
(R1) French studies Total 7410.44
(R2) German studies Total 2092.43
(R3) Italian studies Total 1296.93
(R4) Spanish studies Total 2593.59
(R5) Portuguese studies Total 280.67
(R6) Scandinavian studies Total 73.16
(R7) Russian & East European studies Total 981.18
(R8) European Studies Total 1390.17
(R9) Others in European languages, literature & rel 6288.31
(T1) Chinese studies Total 901.42
(T2) Japanese studies Total 914.03
(T3) South Asian studies Total 163.43
(T4) Other Asian studies Total 221.94
(T5) African studies Total 154.5
(T6) Modern Middle Eastern studies Total 834.75
(T7) American studies Total 2551.84
(T8) Australasian studies Total 7
(T9) Others in Eastern, Asiatic, African, American & Australasian languages, literature & related subjects Total 194.67
TOTAL (all languages) 28350.46
Table 2 can deal with the how much point (I’ll provide more detail at a later date). It shows us the number of Full Person Equivalent (FPE) students. HESA collects data on the percentage of their time spent studying the language. This might be as little as 10% or as much as 100%. Therefore the Full Person Equivalent of people studying languages is 28,230. That is the figure I came to whilst adding all the wholes, halves, this, quarters and tenths.
Returning to point 2 above, some students are studying two or three languages. Therefore the total number of ‘language learning experiences’ exceeds the number of actual students studying languages. If we take away the number of students studying two or more languages our number of individual students studying languages in some way drops from 52,869 individual learning experiences to 42,444 individuals.
So there are 42,444 studying languages in higher education?
No, there are several reasons why this figure is likely to be a severe underestimate.
- Data from London Metropolitan University, Liverpool Hope University, and University College Birmingham are excluded. That would add a few more.
- Reporting data to HESA is the responsibility of individual institutions. They may report up to three subjects, but that is not to say that they do. Some institutions will report a student studying a language for 10% of their time, but others may not. These figures will include some of the 60,000 ‘non-specialist’ students reported to be undertaking some sort of language study, but not all of them (CILT, the National Centre for Languages (2009) HE students of other disciplines studying Available from: http://bit.ly/bw1AT3.
- We do know that the category (R9) “Others in European languages, literature & related subjects” is overused as institutions report all their language students in this category. In Table 1 this means that a student who is studying French and German will be reported as having two language learning experiences if they are reported for French AND German, but just one language learning experience if they are reported under ‘Others’ (R9).
- Similarly some languages do not have their own category. Is a student reported as studying ‘Middle East Studies’ studying Arabic, Persian, both or neither?
- These figures are for students of first degrees and will not include Continuing Education students or other students on non-accredited courses run by universities. I will take a look at these figures at a later date.
This has been a longer post that I intended. Whatever we make of the figures of, it is useful to think about what we want the data for. Whatever our interests and motives we will never truly be able to answer the question “How many students are studying languages in higher education?” with any degree of certainty.