One of Italy’s leading universities Politecnico di Milano has announced that from the academic year 2014-15 most courses will be taught in English rather than Italian, predicting that in the coming decade, most other Italian universities will follow suit. One of the reasons the university has proposed the change is to make Politecnico di Milano graduates more employable, as well as attract a higher calibre of international student.
I have always been acutely aware of the poor record the UK education system has in giving students the tools or the desire to learn and maintain an effective second language – particularly in the important FIGS languages, but this story highlighted again for me how far the UK education system lags behind its European counterparts in thought and flexibility to adapt. While Politecnico di Milano is looking to raise the bar for its students, by pushing them on to use another language in all courses, the UK education system is losing thousands of students studying modern languages at a chronic rate each year.
It is a policy that will only see the UK become further isolated from Europe in business and culture over the coming years.
Working in the language services industry I know many people who use English as a second language, and apart from the distinct accents (and sometimes not even that) you would never know that this was the case.
So I asked one of my Italian friends what the recent announcement from Politecnico di Milano meant to her. “My personal opinion is definitely favourable to this, considering the embarrassing situation of English fluency in the Italian Universities, so it could be a first step to start with and finally reach the level of other European countries in the use of English.”
It would seem her opinions are more widely shared than you would expect. In a recent survey held by Italian news site Ilsole24ore.com, 44% of people were in favour of the changes. Granted this is still the marginal minority but I would expect people to be sceptical in the early stages.
With the current economic situation this is a smart move by the University; giving students a much better chance of gaining a job upon graduation. Could a similar move in UK institutions provide our student population with more opportunities?
In December 2002 the government produced the report, ‘Languages for all: Languages for life – A strategy for England’ , which outlined the then Labour government’s commitment to transform the capabilities of UK students in modern languages over the next 10 years. Yet the failure of this strategy has been stark. Since 1998, the number of pupils sitting a language GCSE has plummeted from 444,700 to only 273,000 in 2010.
In the meantime, there have been lots of grand proclamations, but little in the way of definite direction. On the 22nd March 2012 The Lords EU Committee called on the government to make language courses compulsory in primary and secondary schools across the UK, in an effort to improve the flexibility of students to work in the EU. The committee’s Chairman, Baroness Young of Hornsey, said:
“There’s no question that the EU can continue to play a significant role in helping Member States modernise their higher education systems [...]
“The Erasmus programme, in particular, is an excellent scheme, which rightly enjoys a strong reputation across Europe and which helps to deliver the kind of well-rounded graduates we want to see entering the job market. However, the UK’s participation has been historically low compared to other large Member States. Making language learning compulsory in both primary and secondary school would be one way of increasing the UK’s participation in addition to taking steps to ensure a more diverse range of participants.
“The Government must place higher education at the heart of their growth agenda in order to maintain and contribute to the economic and social wealth of the UK and Europe as a whole.”
However none of the supporting literature states if or when the UK government intend to increase participation in the proposed Erasmus programme. A cohesive policy remains beyond the Government’s grasp, and with current economic constraints, I fear that we will be looking back on these most recent select committee reports in 2022 having not developed a strategy or solution.