Go forth and multiply: the University of Ulster (UU) experience of extending language provision at Magee Campus

Author: Alvaro Jaspe


Magee Campus has developed new diplomas and undergraduate degree courses in modern languages in response to the perceived decline in demand for language places at university level. This article will assess circumstances prevailing in Northern Ireland with regard to language provision, then examine the specific experience of language provision at UU, the Magee campus in particular: previous language provision, centred around one course, has been extended to combine with new options from subjects within Arts, Business, Social and Health Sciences. It will reflect on the reservations of some languages staff and others to this new association. It offers an insight into the changes and pressures imposed on languages staff UK-wide, within - as reflected in the title - an environment of adapt or perish.

This article was added to our website on 18/01/05 at which time all links were checked. However, we cannot guarantee that the links are still valid.

Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the Navigating the new landscape for languages conference (www.llas.ac.uk/navlang), 30 June - 1 July 2004.

1. Introduction: Background to changes in languages provision at UU

In March 2001 the Dean of the Arts Faculty announced that the two dedicated languages programmes running at UU, Applied Languages and International Business Communication (IBC), at Coleraine and Magee respectively, were to be withdrawn immediately. Renewed language provision was needed to revive declining student numbers, although no practical suggestions for the way forward were made. The September 2001 intake would be offered "alternative courses", although not necessarily in languages.

Languages staff recognised the clear message being sent from the higher echelons of University administration. Yet the manner and suddenness of the announcement was unfortunate because staff were already developing new courses, coinciding with the centre's push for a modular and subject-based approach to degree provision, to be piloted at Magee in 2003. This would supplement the already vocationally orientated IBC (two languages with elements of business and computing), whose language modules would form the basis of future language provision at Magee.

Staff believed the existing course dynamic and successful: over 95% of students were employed one year after graduation (Marshall, 2001). Yet falling numbers, and management perception of a languages crisis further fuelled by national media (for example, in October 2000 the BBC reported that double language applications had fallen by 9.7% for that year), meant course restructuring was inevitable, but conducted in an atmosphere ill-suited to clear and detached planning.

2. Languages in HE in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland's distinct educational system meant enrolment for the IBC course remained at or around the target figure of 20, within a total of 882 from the province studying languages at third level (Department of Employment and Learning, 2004). The inclusion of languages as one of the six areas of study in the local curriculum meant that the study of one language at GCSE has remained constant, with Spanish rising to challenge the dominance of French (Perriam, 2003).

Whilst overall student numbers taking two or more languages at GCSE and GCE AS/A2 level have fallen, those with one language at least have remained constant, but no reason for complacency (CILT, 2004).

3. Changes to languages provision at Magee

Staff at Magee adopted a twin approach. Firstly, preserve the existing course, whilst accepting compromises, such as the two languages programme only . The move toward modular, instead of course, degree provision, meant languages staff, reluctantly in some cases, relinquished the two language 'gold standard' to offer individual language provision as a minor within this cross-faculty framework.

From September 2003 language modules in the new modular framework were derivatives of the available IBC modules, allowing this course to continue in the short term. In the summer of 2003 IBC became Languages, Business and Computing (LBC), running alongside the 'new' modular languages provision. Overnight, courses with a languages element rose from one to forty-four, just within those options within the Faculty of Arts: French, German, Spanish or Irish could be combined together, or two of the four combined with Drama, Marketing, Psychology or International Politics. These options exclude courses outside of the Faculty of Arts, such as Law, Computing, Business or Psychology, where the language is a minor.

There was resistance from colleagues in other subject areas who perceived modern languages negatively for recruitment, believing potential applicants saw languages as difficult, therefore being less likely to apply to a course languages elements.

4. Impact on languages applications

Languages numbers were totally transformed, endorsing the view that these courses were still viable. From being courses with perceived recruitment difficulties, within twelve months, these have become healthy performers. 2003 applications for LBC remained constant at 40 whilst numbers for the other languages combinations increased to over 115 within the Faculty of Arts. More applied to study a language as a minor through another faculty, reflected in the increased registrations in September. As well 12 for LBC, a further 19 students registered for French, 10 for Spanish, 2 for German and 3 for Irish. This year the figure has risen to 250 overall within Arts, and the expectation is that registrations in September 2004 will increase proportionately. From September 2004 the modular structure is to be implemented at Coleraine and extended at Magee.

Concerns exist regarding linguistic aptitude of students with a limited languages background and insufficient awareness by minor options students of requisite private study hours (Carter, 2004). However, these retention issues are preferable to discussions on the future of languages provision.

5. Conclusion

The changes made appear to work, but the abiding memory remains the initial edict from on high - go forth and multiply, or else. 2002 also saw the first intake of sub-degree diplomas in French, German and Spanish available on a part-time basis over two years which have strengthened the profile of languages on the campus, albeit at the cost of stretching already limited resources.

Languages form a more integral part of Magee campus course provision, not perceived neither as elitist within languages-specific courses, nor viewed as unwanted 'add-ons' to courses in other faculties. The modular framework at Magee, in conjunction with the pre-2003 course, has been successful for languages recruitment, looking set to continue in the medium-term. Languages provision here extended their appeal to A level students of a single language, and, more importantly perhaps for the future, encouraged ab initio take up at third level; both latter groups previously beyond our reach. Hopefully, a higher percentage of those 900 languages students in N. Ireland will remain for their university education.


Carter, Clare (2004), First Year Retention Project, SDU, UU

CiLT Regional Language Networks, February 2004

Department of Employment and Learning, NI (2004), Statistical Bulletin, Student Enrolments on Higher Education Courses 2002/3.

Marshall, Keith (2001), Higher Education Statistics Agency. Dept. of Modern Languages, Bangor.

Perriam, Chris, (2003), Spanish, the language and culture. LTSN 27-02-03