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Blog post Part of series: BERA Conference 2023

Languages provision in UK further education

Min-Chen Liu, Research Fellow at Queen's University Belfast

‘Previously nobody would have been interested in Arabic. But now we have hundreds and hundreds of Syrian refugees and people working with them. So that sort of guides me when thinking of offering a language.’ (FE/college subject leader)

Multilingualism holds significant importance in the United Kingdom, impacting a wide spectrum of people. It’s not just about being able to speak more than one language; it’s also about mutual understanding, diversity, unity and making the UK’s future bright. So, let’s kick languages provision in further education (FE) into high gear, listen closely to what our FE champions have to say, and start shaking things up!

In the UK, FE offers a unique educational opportunity. It serves as the bridge between secondary school and higher education (universities), which includes various institutions such as FE colleges. These colleges play a pivotal role in providing a diverse range of educational pathways. Students can pursue vocational qualifications, apprenticeship programmes, GCSEs and A-levels, gain access to higher education courses, and adult education classes.

For far too long, language provision research in the UK has been primarily centred on secondary and higher education. This has led our landmark study on languages provision in UK further education to reveal a notable gap – a lack of research engagement with learners, lecturers and leaders concerning their perceptions and experiences of learning and teaching languages in FE (Collen et al., 2023). In this blog post, I hope to take you on a captivating journey. Together with my colleagues, I’ve delved deep into the findings of our extensive study in which we examine the landscape of languages provision in UK further education over the past two decades. Our study found that the four major languages – French, Spanish, German and Italian – still hold the dominant position in the FE setting. In addition to the big four languages, students also have opportunities to learn other languages, including British Sign Language, Japanese, Mandarin and Arabic. Importantly, our study has also shed light on the reasons for learning languages at the FE setting. Students have expressed that FE offers them a pathway to build upon their past language education, bolsters their employability, aligns with university expectations, lets them explore personal interests, and opens doors to exciting international experiences.

‘Learning languages offers FE students a pathway to build upon their past language education, bolsters their employability, aligns with university expectations, lets them explore personal interests, and opens doors to exciting international experiences.’

To collect primary data from across all four nations of the UK, we conducted a semi-systematic literature review. We searched three academic databases (British Education Index, ERIC and Education Abstracts), resulting in the identification of 1,103 records. From these records, nine journal articles were included in our study. In addition to the semi-systematic literature review, we carried out a secondary data analysis of existing national statistics (such as Department for Education or StatsWales) related to language uptake in FE. Additionally, we designed bespoke online surveys to gather primary data from FE students and staff, and we engaged in in-depth interviews with stakeholders such as FE teachers, FE leaders and students in each region.

The survey results underscore concerns about the perceived lack of emphasis on languages within FE colleges. More than half of the staff (53 per cent) reported that classes do not run when there are low enrolment numbers for language courses. Additionally, over three-quarters of the staff (76 per cent) mentioned that there is no foreign language assistant in their colleges. Moreover, FE staff often view languages as being excluded from the career repertoire, with a notable absence of institutional-wide language promotion. We also highlight a prevailing sentiment among staff members that senior management doesn’t seem to be putting languages on the VIP list, and that’s causing some real head-scratching in languages departments.

In contrast to the staff views, the FE student survey results present an intriguing perspective: a significant majority of respondents identify as bilingual or multilingual. While this may be because students of languages were more likely than not to respond to our survey, they passionately believe that languages are essential for fostering diversity, promoting integration, and shaping the future of the UK.

As we transition to the insights gleaned from our interviews, a deeper layer of complexity unfolds. As an FE/college learner expressed: ‘So I completed the GCSE and then found I was stuck again. There was no path to continue on. Unfortunately, there was no A-level, the college refused to do it because there weren’t enough people signed up.’ But this was countered by an FE/College leader who explained: ‘The college needs to survive. Funded courses are more lucrative. So, we push the accredited courses more.’ These interviews have provided valuable context and perspective on the decline in language provision within FE colleges, shedding light on the adaptive and responsive measures that may be required for the opportunities for the continued languages provision in FE.

Our study on languages provision in UK further education has unearthed intricate dynamics that merit careful consideration. While staff, students and senior managers may offer differing perspectives, each group contributes valuable insights. The future of languages provision in the FE sector hinges on recognising the strategic importance of languages and uniting all stakeholders under this shared understanding. To move forward, it is also imperative that we lend an attentive ear to the voices of UK FE learners, educators and leaders. Their experiences and viewpoints will be instrumental in revitalising languages provision.

Min-Chen Liu received the BERA Annual Conference 2023 – Post-Compulsory and Lifelong Learning SIG Best Presentation Award for the paper ‘Languages provision in UK further education’.


Collen, I., Henderson, L., Liu, M-C., O’Boyle, A., & Roberts, J. (2023). Languages provision in UK further education. The British Academy.