I meet every few months for supper with friends who got Chinese language degrees. In the nearly two decades since we graduated, their career paths have been wildly varied: tea buyer; history professor; translator; insurance broker. One former classmate had a lingerie company for a while.
Defenders of the liberal arts have reacted with sadness at the announcement that Sunderland University is to close its history department after only 14 students enrolled to study the subject this year. Its modern languages department is also closing after no one enrolled for its courses - a shame, critics say, in a nation already notorious for its poor foreign language skills.
Furthermore, the university’s combined history and politics degree will cease to be available after garnering only 15 students this year, and research and postgraduate courses in all of these subjects are also ending.
Language study at university is not a dead end (though Chinese may appeal more than French in some sectors, here is a ranking of the languages most likely to yield related jobs). But still, the number of universities offering modern languages has dropped by 40 per cent over the past decade and a half.
And history? While some of my colleagues may be disappointed, happily the academic study of what went on in the past and why it matters is showing no signs of extinction. The top-ranked history courses, which can be paired with other disciplines, can lead to careers in television, academia, finance, accounting or, ahem, journalism.
But Sunderland's spokespeople say these courses weren't working. Heralding its “career-focused and professions-facing approach to its curriculum”, Sunderland explained on its website: “The governors agreed that all subjects and programmes in the university should be educationally and financially sustainable, align with a particular employment sector, fit within the University’s overall strategy and be of a consistently high-quality.”
This, to me, sounds sensible. Ranked 107th overall out of 131 universities in this year’s Complete University Guide League Tables, Sunderland’s history course was ranked 88th out of a total of 93 at other institutions. The university says it is pivoting towards its areas of “potential strength”, including “health-related disciplines where the university has grown both the subject mix on offer – most recently through opening programmes in medicine, physiotherapy and occupational therapy – and the number of students recruited.”
This appears to be the market in action: pupils have concluded that a history or French degree from Sunderland would not be a good investment of their time.
On the other hand, critics say, ending academic offerings at institutions like Sunderland will limit the options in particular of less academically gifted students. More highly ranked history courses are over-crowded, while no one can attend lower-ranked courses because they’re closing.
One possible solution to the imbalance in courses is to revive quotas, which were dropped in 2015.
But this problem is even bigger than that distribution. Sunderland’s move is a reminder of the opportunity divide in this country, and how the current system isn’t working. Keeping low-ranked courses to fill will students with poor-quality qualifications won't yield success.
That old cohort of Chinese language students I mentioned earlier, the ones prescient enough to study Mandarin in a time when it was only sort of cool, when China was still a dragon in the process of waking, had a few other things in common: they were all from financially secure backgrounds; they all went to private schools; not one was a first-generation university student.
Not every student should pursue an academic subject after school. Not every academic degree yields good job prospects. Not every pre-professional qualification does, either.
But if you don’t have a decent financial cushion, you cannot afford to risk pursuing what you want, and academic study becomes the preserve of only the wealthiest Britons. Their schools prepare them for it. Our state schools, admissions rates suggest, do not. Their parents support them in it. And our elite university classrooms and most sought-after workplaces are the poorer for this imbalance.
We don’t need every university to offer identical courses, but we do need to ensure that students from all socioeconomic backgrounds can pursue the subjects that most interest them, in fields they believe will lead them to a fulfilling future. That will require far better coaching at secondary level, and the active recruitment of students with potential onto highly regarded academic courses, which is going to require a greater effort from schools and universities.
Is studying a language at university only an option for wealthy students? Share your view in the comments section below.