There are regular complaints in the press that Oxford and Cambridge Universities are still failing to increase significantly the number of places given to ethnic minority students. The complaint is not new. All the reports I have seen have missed a key factor in the criteria for selection.In Britain, undergraduate admissions are handled electronically and centrally by an organisation known as UCAS. The central website basically has a long electronic questionnaire which can be completed over many attempts. The questionnaire includes space for the usual personal details, schooling, qualifications taken and to be taken, a reference, and a personal statement.Now, even though I am British, and even though I am a linguist and have come across comments on the language ability of the British, I was unprepared for a massive shock when going through this form with my son, a shock which should not have surprised me, but somehow did, and it filled me with disgust and frustration.There is no place whatsoever for languages on the UCAS form.I am not referring to formal qualifications in languages. I am talking about real ability in languages. In multilingual countries real ability in other languages is seen as an absolute prerequisite for University entrance – regardless of the subject. For instance, first year students of medicine in Arabic speaking North Africa, as well as needing the highest marks in maths and sciences are expected to have high grades in English and French. You can be brilliant in Physics or Mathematics, but if your foreign languages are not up to standard, you must do an easier degree.I am appalled that there is not even space on the UCAS form for foreign languages. They are not even considered – not once. It was as if foreign languages did not exist. The UCAS form clearly shows the value given to languages in British education.Of course I should not be surprised by this. In Europe a working knowledge of at least two foreign languages is a viewed as a minimum for anyone who is reasonably educated. But not in Britain.Languages can of course be mentioned on the UCAS form – in the reference and personal statement – but they should have been included as one of the major questions. The scoring should be according to the Common European Framework of Reference. In this scheme A1 and A2 is beginner level, B1 and B2 is intermediate, and C1/C2 is advanced. And since the Common European Framework of reference was designed from the beginning to be suitable for self assessment, all it would take is a series of tables, one for each language or variety. You could simply be asked what level you have for Listening, Reading, Spoken interaction, Speeches, and Writing, and asked if this is a self-assessment or not.Since level B1 is the equivalent of an AS level, and B2 is roughly the equivalent of the first year of University, such a table would value languages and those with multilingual backgrounds.A minimum of five tables should be made available. The self assessment could be supported by the referee. If someone has any external proof of level they can add this in the usual way to the qualifications list. For immigrants who are losing the language of the parents, they may be able to speak and understand a language, but not read and write it. Such a table would still give their skills the value they deserve. For Arabic speakers this would mean separate tables for dialect and classical (Low and High forms as linguists like to say). Dialect Arabic is used mainly for spoken interaction and listening. Modern Standard Arabic is used mainly for reading, writing, listening, and speeches.Oxbridge, and the universities in general, are not giving the credit that is deserved to multi-linguals. Many of them easily have levels B2-C2 in one or more languages in addition to English. What would happen If Oxbridge were to accept B2 in another language as equivalent to an A level grade A double star? It is said that Oxbridge gets at least four good applicants per place. We know from psycholinguistics that multilingual people are often more intelligent, and certainly more adaptable, than monolinguals. What would happen if foreign language ability were used to differentiate between the best candidates?Universities valuing languages would also have the bonus of favouring the immigrant population – their language skills would at last be given the high value they deserve. And, given that second generation immigrants often lose the language of their parents, it would provide a needed encouragement to immigrants to keep their former languages in addition to mastering English.
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