Monday, 31 January 2011

Language learning and EU students

In a post earlier this month (January 18th) I commented on the high costs for the Scottish Government in supporting EU students coming to Scottish universities to study, given the present situation where Scottish students pay no fees. Since writing that piece there have been further articles in the UK press on the topic, and an important issue came up that I should have paid more attention to last time. This is the simple point that Scottish (or other UK) students going to study at universities in other EU member countries also pay no fees, or pay whatever - usually very low - fee is levied on nationals of the country concerned. Such students are therefore subsidised by the government of whichever EU country they have chosen for their studies.

So there is a two-way traffic going on here, with subsidies to the universities paid by the government of any country receiving an incoming student from another EU member state. That all sounds perfectly fair, doesn't it? And it's a nice example of how the EU, almost accidentally, encourages some highly desirable cross-border mobility by students. As usual, though, it's not that simple. For in practice the flows of students are much more asymmetrical with lots wanting to come to Scotland (and also England), not many at all seeking to move from Scotland to another EU country to study. The reason is quite simple, hardly any Scottish students learn a foreign language to a sufficiently high level that they could seriously contemplate studying elsewhere, in that language. In contrast, huge numbers of EU students learn English well enough to be able to cope with studying in an English-speaking country.

So in a way, we can think of the problem not so much as one of finance and fees, but rather it has much more to do with learning foreign languages. And it seems to me that Scotland - and Scottish students - lose out badly in the modern world. For if not many of our young people learn foreign languages to a high level, then I would have thought this would tend to reinforce the insularity of Scotland in the world economy, and would weaken our ability to operate successfully in other cultures, using other languages. What a pity that is!

Somehow, therefore, our schools need to re-think their whole approach to the teaching of foreign languages and their students also need to re-think their attitudes to such learning. The area needs a lot more energy, commitment, and sheer hard work from all involved. And let's not forget, learning a language well enough to use it abroad is one of the most satisfying things a young person can do, a really worthwhile achievement. It can also be enormous fun.

No comments:

Post a Comment