German language continues to slide in higher education..

Leicester University’s German department is the latest to consider closure, as students opt for ‘warmer’ languages such as Spanish and French.

Faced with the closure of German departments across the country, German graduates are having to expand their search for research posts to wider categories.  Next month, another university’s senate will debate a proposal from senior management to close its German department in 2013.

The full-time lecturer, full-time teaching fellow and part-time teaching fellow who make up the University of Leicester’s German department have been told the future of their department is “unsustainable”.

The university says the proposals allow it “to invest in areas of growing demand within the school of modern languages, and follow a decline in the numbers of students choosing to study German”.

“It is part of the evolution of universities that particular subject areas cease and new courses are brought on stream in ways that reflect demand and the objectives of the university,” its spokesman says.

Meanwhile, Queen’s University Belfast has ruled that this year’s 20 undergraduates studying German will be its last. It says student demand is “unsustainably low” and that the subject “performed poorly” in the latest evaluation of the research output of UK universities. The language will continue as an extra-curricular study, a spokeswoman says.

Just 64 out of the 116 universities in the UK are offering German as part of a degree, for courses starting in the autumn of 2010. The subject has been taught at UK universities for 125 years. In the 1950s it was particularly popular because of Germany’s economic boom and a revival in interest in the Romantic authors Goethe and Schiller.

But the latest figures show the number of undergraduates choosing a German language course in the UK is falling. Between 2006-07 and 2007-08 it fell by 10% to 4,765. The number has, however, fluctuated over the past five years and rose by 7% between 2005-06 and 2006-07.

The number of students taking German GCSE or A-level continued to drop this year, falling by nearly 8% at A-level to 5,765 students and by 4% at GCSE to 73,469 students.  Postgraduate enrolments on teacher training courses with a specialism in German have gone down for the last couple of years. The latest figures show just 169 enrolled in 2007-08, a drop of 30% on the year before.

German history lectures still manage to pull in the crowds. At Nottingham Trent University, humanities professor William Niven says modules on the Third Reich and Uniting Germany regularly draw in more than 100 students each year. But could the recent spate of threatened closures signal the end to degrees that combine study of the German language and the country’s culture and history?

“This isn’t the end of German studies, but the subject will probably end up only being taught at some Russell group [the most competitive and research-intensive] universities within the next decade,” says Pól Ó Dochartaigh, vice-president of the Association for German Studies in Great Britain and Ireland and dean of the faculty of arts at the University of Ulster.

Professor Susanne Kord, head of University College London’s German department, says: “We will see many more German departments close or, at the very least, amalgamate into other departments. This means that they will lose their independence and budgetary control as well as a considerable amount of their current prestige and visibility, both nationally and internationally.”

And yet Germany is Europe’s largest economy and a major trading partner for the UK. In many parts of eastern Europe, German is the language of business. For others, it is the language of drama, the sciences and philosophy. How can we be witnessing its gradual demise in universities?  There may be multiple reasons.

One is the falling numbers of students taking German at GCSE, A-level and then on to degree level. This has escalated since the government decided in 2004 that a modern language should no longer be compulsory at GCSE.

There is also the perception that German is a difficult language. The reality is that even though it might have more case endings, it is closer to English than Spanish or French are.

Modern language departments have also received budget cuts in the latest research assessment exercise (the evaluation of research output in UK universities). German was hit more severely than other subjects because those who set the standard were particularly stringent.

Sarah Colvin, Mason chair of German at the University of Edinburgh, thinks it is more likely to be that languages such as German are easy hits for university management. They are expensive to deliver because they require small class sizes. “At a time when university funding is being severely reduced, languages look like an easy way to save money.”

The last five years have seen the proportion of students enrolling on modern language degrees drop by 4%. The Higher Education Funding Council for England now classifies subjects on these degrees as “strategically important and vulnerable”.

It has commissioned an urgent review of their sustainability, to be published next month. It is led by Michael Worton, professor of French at UCL, who will give little away, apart from the suggestion that his report will look at the importance of teaching the history and culture of Germany, in addition to the German language.