Disappointing resignation over university students' English

2 min
An archive iimatge of the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona

Catalonia's inter-University Council, formed by the Government and universities, has given up on asking graduate students to have a B2 level in English if they wish to obtain a degree. This is a clear step backwards. It can be disguised in many ways, but the facts are the facts: there will no longer be a rule that makes all graduates have a common minimum. And if there is no such requirement, there will be a proliferation of loopholes and excuses for laxity. The result will be that, as a country, we will continue to be at the bottom in terms of knowledge of English. This will make us economically and academically less competitive.

This is desperate to see. This kind of decision is an acknowledgement of collective impotence as a country, it is an acceptance that we didn't succeed. The measure was approved in 2014, but its implementation has been postponed until it seems to have been definitively dropped. How could this have happened? Are we facing a bout of realism or rather a policy of resignation? And the other key question is: what has been done during these eight years so that this demand could become effective? But there are many more questions: what concrete and effective measures have been taken by universities and all other education levels? What monitoring and evaluation has been done to see if, year after year, the desired levels had been achieved? The feeling is that no one has taken it seriously and no one has been willing or able to lead the necessary improvement. And so now we find ourselves giving in.

The B2 level of English (equivalent to the Cambridge University's First Certificate) is the minimum required for any person to be able to get around in this language at a basic level. It is also what is required of a primary school teacher to teach in English (only 5,083 teachers have this accredited profile), while in secondary school on level higher (C1 – Advanced) is required: 4,463 teachers have it. Bearing in mind that there are over 5,400 schools in Catalonia, there are fewer than two teachers per school who can teach in English. The problem, then, comes from the base of the educational system, but this does not justify resignation from above. At some point and at some time the bar has to start to be raised or, otherwise, progress will be very slow, or worse still: there will be none at all. And on the other hand, lowering the bar really harms those who are at the bottom, because those who can afford private language schools and stays abroad will pay for them. Therefore, the solution is to raise the bar and provide the means (scholarships, teachers) so that everyone can achieve it on equal terms.

In reality, a university student (not just a graduate, which is also the case) should be able to read, speak and understand English fluently, i.e. not at B2 level, but at C1 level. In fact, most European universities (and those of other continents) require the equivalent of a C1 for foreign students on Erasmus stays. Now it turns out that Catalonia can produce graduates who don't even have a B2 level. Whichever way you look at it, this is a failure. We cannot afford it.