Discussion about how to monitor and increase participation in languages study has been growing in the UK, the US and Australia, particularly in higher education. Levels of enrolment in modern languages at universities around the world have come to be described in terms of ‘crisis’ or even ‘permanent crisis’. In Australia the new degree structures implemented by the University of Melbourne in 2008 and the University of Western Australia in 2012 have bucked this trend. The reforms introduced by those two universities have led to unprecedented levels of enrolment in languages, and are the focus of current research we are undertaking at UWA. The question of how to increase access to language study will be the subject of an article to appear in the journal Language Learning in Higher Education later this year.
Previous attempts to open up language study to new students have had some success in Australia. These initiatives include combining language study with another study area, introducing a ‘Diploma of Languages’, offering a Year 12 language bonus for university entry and the introduction of a specific Bachelor of Languages at some universities. Although the new structures at the University of Melbourne and at UWA have been the most successful in opening up access to languages, structural restrictions continue to limit access to language study.
According to the Mapping the Humanities report released in 2014 by the Australian Academy of the Humanities, “the biggest increases in language enrolments in individual universities have occurred where many of these restrictions have been tempered or removed”. Making degree structures more flexible has led to new cohorts of students accessing language study for the first time. The introduction of ‘breadth subjects’ or ‘broadening’ units’ in degrees has seen students selecting languages for these subjects – and recent research shows that they are doing so in massive numbers.
Identifying who these new students are, which subjects they are taking and how much progress they make with language learning is part of our ongoing work. So far, the key finding from this research has been that the study of a language at university is directly related to issues of access and degree structure. Remove the barriers and languages will flourish.