HL Deb 21 January 2004 vol 657 cc1024-6

2.56 p.m.

Lord Harrison asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking to encourage British students in United Kingdom universities to study Middle Eastern and Central Asian languages.

Lord Triesman

My Lords, the numbers of students taking Chinese, Japanese, other Asian and Middle Eastern languages, literature and culture courses in the United Kingdom's higher education institutions increased by 29 per cent over the past two years. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has provided £3 million more over the past three years to fund minority subjects at risk. The Government launched a strategy promoting modern foreign languages in England in December 2002. Through that, we are promoting language learning to students and pupils choosing A-level courses.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, I take the opportunity to congratulate my noble friend on his new job. That is the best Answer that I have ever heard him give in this House. Given his expertise in British higher education, and given that language acquisition is the best weapon of mass instruction, how does he expect Britain's military, intelligence and diplomatic services to recruit the vital linguists that they need to do their jobs when so few British universities teach Arabic, and important languages like Berber and Pushtu are taught in none of our universities? Will he address the important question of postgraduate studies in Islamic studies and Middle Eastern studies? There is a severe imbalance in the number of British students as opposed to foreign students pursuing such studies. In 2001, of 737 postgraduate students, only 12 were British. When it comes to Britain's security, are languages not matters of life and death?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for his kind comments about my first Answer. He is right that it was the best answer that. I have given, and I hope that this one will not be too bad either.

I accept the point that languages are vital to conducting a successful foreign policy and to intelligence community work. Nothing compels any student to study any subject. All that can be done is to try to make it as attractive as possible to students to pursue a subject, so that they can make informed choices. Happily, this is a story that at least has some signs of green shoots. After a period in which language applications to universities declined considerably, I have already made the point that there has been a sizeable movement in the past couple of years.

I am happy to say, looking through the statistics, that in relation to Middle Eastern languages, literature and culture, there was a 22 per cent increase in the number of people going into undergraduate courses in the past year. I do not want to overstate the case, but that is an encouraging sign. That was set against the background of a decrease of 6 per cent when one takes all of the modern European languages, which shows a contrast.

At postgraduate level, the latest figures that I have been able to get from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that there are roughly 250 students enrolled in the relevant courses pertinent to this Question. Eighty-five of them are from the United Kingdom, and 30 are from the EU. I am not convinced that that will be adequate for all the needs about which the noble Lord asked, but it is certainly a move in an encouraging direction.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, that it would be desirable to have more study of these languages. However, how can the Government claim to encourage any student to study anything when they propose to load on young people starting in life the highest levels of debt ever known? When those people graduate, the Government will then tax them at higher marginal rates than millionaires.

Lord Triesman

My Lords, the noble Baroness will know from questions asked in the House in even the past couple of days that there is not much evidence of anyone being put off from the pursuit of any course at the moment. In present circumstances, there are no proposals for up-front fees. Better support is being proposed for those who currently receive support as students, and repayment will take place only when people earn above a certain threshold. If the occupation is now in great demand and the supply of students far too limited, as the debate may indicate, that should push up their wages and make it easier to reach the threshold. Those are the economics of the matter.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, I note the Minister's optimism about language take-up but, given that school and university students still show very little interest in even such neighbouring languages as German, I do not think that many of us could have much hope about the take-up of more exotic languages, despite the 22 per cent increase that the Minister noted. Yet there are thousands of native speakers of such exotic languages in this country. Might the Minister reflect on the possibility that our now flourishing specialist language schools might tap into the immigrant community and, perhaps through the setting up of leisure language clubs, might interest and excite pupils into exploring some very different languages—Turkish, Pashto, Farsi, Arabic and so on—and their writing systems? That might have an effect on not only language learning, but community relations.

Lord Triesman

My Lords, I am sure that there is a very good case for tapping into all those sources. In a rich and diverse cultural community there are such resources, and it will repay some effort to make sure that we are in touch with them. In the strategy that I mentioned in my first response, Languages for All: Languages for Life, the Government have set about a programme of stimulating much more language acquisition from relatively young ages, all the way through to students taking A-levels. That is an exciting programme. The Pathfinder element of the programme shows tremendous reasons for encouragement. Many cities are beginning to develop it across a number of schools and with a great many specialists who have not been involved before. Although that is a long-haul answer—no one acquires languages instantly or gets to university level in a few weeks—it is certainly the start that is needed.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, the Minister has given us reassuring figures in terms of the increase over the past year. However, how many university departments have closed centres of teaching of modern and Middle Eastern languages in the past 10 years? Has the number of students risen in that time?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, the numbers in the areas to which I have referred have risen, although there has been a decline across languages as a whole, certainly over the past five years for which the statistics are more precise. The only university department closing of which I am aware is the University of Durham's department of east Asian studies, which closed in September 2003. That generated a good deal of publicity at the time. Universities are, of course, wholly independent organisations. They make their decisions about which courses they should run without reference, quite rightly, to any considerations other than whether they can attract the students, sustain the courses and offer an acceptable level of research.

The University of Durham is currently investigating how best it can reintroduce at least part of its teaching programme in Chinese and Japanese at a higher level. That suggests that the market is moving back again in a positive direction.