Last Wednesday I went on my first visit to Canning House, home of the Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Council in London. The subject of the morning was educational and scientific co-operation between the UK and Latin America, the two speakers being David Willetts MP, Minister for Universities and Science, and Dr. Joanna Newman, from the Universities UK International Unit. It proved to be an interesting morning. However, I was disappointed to find that the anglocentric view of “everyone must learn English”, with no reciprocal intent to learn other languages, to be running strong in this circle. Maybe it was naive of me, but I can only say that I was shocked to find that the people who are so deeply involved in promoting this country’s higher education abroad still express such an opinion.
There seem to be some interesting cooperation programmes being set up between the UK and various Latin American countries. Both Joanna and David mentioned in some detail the Science without Borders initiative that Dilma Rousseff, current president of Brazil, has pioneered, which is resulting in some 120,000 Brazilian science students taking their studies abroad for various periods on the programme, some of whom have the UK as their destination.
Mention was made of continuing work with Chile, Colombia and Mexico, the focus of which is on the forging and strengthening of partnerships between the University networks in these countries with the UK University network. The development of system to system strategies, in which experts in the logistical aspects of running universities can share their expertise and work together, seems to be an area of particular interest.
However, despite all this talk about needing to “work together” and that these partnerships should be a “collaborative effort”, what most stood out to me was the repetition of this preoccupation that foreign students do not have a sufficient level of English to fully participate in courses here. The lack of sufficiently qualified English teachers in Colombia was also mentioned, as was our duty to ensure that the students of these countries attain a suitable level of English.
Not once in these speeches was the linguistic capability of British students abroad mentioned. The reluctance of UK students to go abroad was mentioned both by Joanna and by David, but neither suggested that this had anything to do with UK society in general, or the education system’s failure to encourage language learning and to put it on students’ agendas.
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When the obvious reciprocal importance of British students learning Spanish and Portuguese was raised by Tim Connell, from the Chartered Institute of Linguists, David Willits’s response was to call the situation “frustrating”, stressing that languages still received funding as strategically important and vulnerable subjects. However, he did not seem to place great emphasis or interest in looking at the deeper reasons why we have such as laissez-faire attitude towards the learning of foreign languages, and commented no further.
Joanna only compounded this sense of ambivalence, stressing that more and more universities in Latin America are actually teaching their courses in English, which may be the case, but I did not feel that it was a suitable excuse as to why we continue to have this anglocentric focus to everything we do. I also understand that we are talking about scientific research partnerships, and that much scientific research is conducted in English, but this has very little to do with British students moving to other countries to spend months or years living in a different culture and being able to integrate with the people there.
To conclude, whilst I found the talk very interesting, finding out a bit more about the partnerships that are being forged between our university system and those of the Latin American countries, I felt shocked and saddened to realise that our priorities continue to be to impose and enforce English as the lingua franca without any sort of self-reflection or consideration of the closed-mindedness that this puts across to other countries. In the end this will only serve to damage the UK and its citizens.