How many people are studying for a languages degree in higher education? Why it is hard to know.

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:

Table 1

(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

TOTAL                                                                                        52,869


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.

  1. 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%.
  2. 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.

Table 2

(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.

  1. Data from London Metropolitan University, Liverpool Hope University, and University College Birmingham are excluded. That would add a few more.
  2. 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:
  3. 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).
  4. Similarly some languages do not have their own category. Is a student reported as studying ‘Middle East Studies’ studying Arabic, Persian, both or neither?
  5. 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.

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