Mind your language

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Though I have a few issues within the handling of higher education in the Isle of Man – such as tax procedures for students off island, general funding arrangements and the facilities for career guidance – I felt compelled to write on a different topic today. From the outset I would note that the aim of this post was to introduce the issue and my concerns with some semblance of a clarity – I’m also keen to avoid the inherent arrogance of ‘letters to the editor’ style  address that blog posts can adopt on political issues.Principally, this article will discuss my issues with career development and languages – particularly my sheer frustration at the current policy relating to returning graduates and provision/prioritisation for language education. 

Today I represented my employer (a software development firm) at the International Business School Graduations. As a potted history for those not involved with the Isle of Man; the IBS, situated fantastic grounds of a former Nunnery, hold the mantle of providing the islands “University Centre”. In providing Degree, Masters and Professional Qualifications on the island it partners with John Moores University. All in all, bar some politics, it does a pretty decent job and has considerable potential for growth.

A lunch with great and the good, I was lucky to be one of the invited few, marked the 6th graduation ceremony. Over cheese and biscuits, I brought up the topic of language education. Sitting with leaders in marketing, banking and telecoms I was unsurprised to hear that I was not alone in my feeling with regard the topic of today’s post.

Centrally, this post comes about as I believe that the current arrangement of post school education support is fundamentally to the detriment of foreign language development and I believe this to be an inherently limiting factor for the islands economy. Fundamentally, I would argue that it is important to not only have people with languages but people with saleable skills that can communicate internationally. I believe that anywhere but the Isle of Man I would likely struggle to gain seniority within my chosen industry without this supplementary ability.

The Isle of Man as a “Knowledge Economy”
Prior to the government reorganisation. the Isle of Man Government Department of Trade and Industry maintained five ‘Sector Skills’ groups. These groups have made it patently clear that a major  issue facing local employers is the islands ‘brain drain’. The Island’s employers were finding it increasingly difficult to recruit quality graduates to fill the positions offered.

This seems an almost paradoxical situation.

The Island’s education system has traditionally been extremely good, consistently producing strong A-level results and sending school leavers to some of the best universities in the world.  Talent has not been the problem, but rather that these students who enjoy Isle of Man worker status have not returned to the Island to work once their advanced education was completed.  Obviously, there will always be students who chose to live elsewhere for myriad reasons.  However, currently the figure stands at 85% of school-leavers.

Every year, approximately 1,100 undergraduate and 120 post-graduate students receive financial support from the Isle of Man Government to further their studies at universities in the UK or further afield. The annual budget for further and higher education courses is more than £11.5 million, (£1.5 million in maintenance grants and £10 million in tuition fees). Furthermore, with every graduate position that isn’t filled by a Manx school-leaver, recruitment from overseas workforces becomes a necessity. This creates an immigration and work permit issue, which places an avoidable issue for the island to grapple with.

The issue has historically fallen between a number of Departmental ‘stools’. However, The Department of Education The Department of Economic Development now broadly assumes responsibility for encouraging students, graduates and professionals who traditionally left the island for higher education courses to return to the island after their education. This move I wholeheartedly support with the hope that it will overcome what I see as the current lack of a joined up approach.

Language training as a case in point.
Though I understand there are many potential avenues for the attentions of Government – it is, as the saying goes, about making choices. Much like learning to drive, I would argue that unlike academic training whether that be in science, technology or business and finance,  language training should be viewed outside the Venn diagram. At the moment, you chose to study for a language degree or you don’t learn a language.

The Isle of Man clearly follows the UK trend of over-reliance, compared to the rest of the world, on business with countries which can speak English. The British Isles continue to sit at the bottom of the league in terms of competence in other languages – indeed, the home nations rarely even support their own regional languages. Should this policy continue, it is without doubt that the island will be limiting its competitiveness within the world economy.

  • A range of organisations, including the the UK such as National Centre for Languages (UK) or the European Commission Directorate General for Education and Culture Brussels, have made the economic value of education clear.
  • 1995 European Commission’s White Paper “Teaching and learning – Towards the learning society”, stated that “upon completing initial training, everyone should be proficient in two Community foreign languages”. The Lisbon Summit of 2000 defined languages as one of the five key skills.
  • About half of the EU’s primary school pupils learn a foreign language. English is the language taught most often at lower secondary level in the EU. There, 93% of children learn English.
  • Conversely in 2004 a British survey showed that only one in 10 UK workers could speak a foreign language. Going forward this problem will only get worse. In 2004, the Labour government removed modern languages from the”core curriculum” and as such a foreign language is no longer compulsory at schools past age 14.
  • At the same time, since the 1990s the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages has tried to standardize the learning of languages across Europe. Recognition has also standardised across European Higher Education Quality networks.

As things stand the Adult language classes offered in Isle of Man, such as those offered by the Isle of Man college, do not offer certification to internationally recognised levels. Such recognition would be vital for major international employers. Even with additional classes in schools they also cannot support the level of interest in them. The Spanish class for instance has been over subscribed for some time and serve the holiday-maker rather than the professional.

Value of Ongoing professional development
Far from wishing to ‘blow my own trumpet’, I have been a consistent honors student in a range of disciplines. Like many graduates, I have an education that covering a disparate range. This built up background knowledge has economic value. In terms of career goals, I have always planned to take a continental European language to business level (probably Spanish) and an Asian language to introductory level (probably Chinese). This would enable me to make best value of the sunk investment in my education. Ultimately, if for no other reason because it is widely proven that graduates on the whole earn more and therefore pay more tax.

From my own perspective, learning a language will be a chore and a struggle. A strong German speaker in school (GCSE level) this was not maintained and has been essentially lost to me. However, I understand the importance of language to my future in an international economy. Increasingly, multi national organisations prioritise language skills – and if you don’t have them you stand out (and not in a good way).

Throughout my time in higher education I was a keen advocate of the island. Returning to the island has had notable benefits in these challenging economic times but it is not without its struggles. For instance, graduates develop social networks that are difficult to maintain from afar. Indeed, few graduates leave the immediate area surrounding their higher education institution of choice. Opportunities and former programme graduates keen to support recent members also encourage people to stay.

Ultimately, despite the obvious strides in professional education going on within the Isle of Man. Skills development remains a challenge. I cannot afford the luxury of remaining on the island where I would become less competitive toward my former class mates. Even though I returned regularly for summer work and ultimately to begin my career – I believe that it looks increasingly likely I will leave again. As it stands, I question whether there are the incentives or opportunities for progression to warrant staying.

Possible Policy Alternatives
When so many of my Peers failing to return I would argue that the system should incentivize both returners and continued professional development.

Extremely disappointed by what I see as a lack of joining up of services – encouraging students to return and the ongoing Skills Training and Career development of current workforce are both of obvious benefit. There a range of potential actions

On application for support I feel I was dismissed in a ‘tick box exercise’. No alternatives were given and from my perspective weak grounds of refusal were granted. In my case, residency was cited. Though I have been a registered international student consistently, returned regularly for work  and maintained my tax obligations since entering higher education I was not deemed suitably ‘resident’ for these purposes.

  • A simple tax deduct able training allowance – where Isle of Man workers undertake and fund their own training this should be simple to reclaim as a tax deduction. Much in the same way that company’s can reclaim training expenses
  • Training grants / student loans – with repayment over the longer term with the possibly of a significantly reduced return rate for those who return to the island.
  • Compulsory service (ie making post graduation work with an island firm a requirement funding).
  • Formalise community education teaching – at the moment the College and schools offer informal language for holiday training. While this is laudable, it should offer twin track examination.
  • Encourage the provision of ‘language for business’ modules from the IBS

My own rant additional rant
I have this month graduated with a Masters in Business Studies – Management Information Systems and Management Accounting through the National University of Ireland. Year one was intensive and year two I undertook by distance from the Island.

Funding of my education to this point has been a bone of contention, for my Undergraduate degree I was refused support but then given ‘discretionary funding’ to meet part of my international student fees (reaching €15k per year by final year). Although I returned to Ireland, I was viewed as an international because of my Manx education. When it came to postgraduate I was told that an MBS is not one of the standard post-grad programmes supported by the IOM (ie, though it may be in the same vein isn’t called an MBA) and as such I was left to wholly self fund.

Masters complete, I then made contact about support for postgraduate language training but was told that I was disqualified for having already gained a Masters (the same Masters that hadn’t been recognised only a few months earlier).

Self funding is made all the more galling when it is understood that Open University Fees for Isle of Man students are far greater than the fee to domestic UK or Irish students. As an illustration, the fee before subsidies for one 30 credit module in Spanish for an English student (£445.00) compared to £925.00 for the same module to an Isle of Man student.

Having recently gone through both undergraduate and postgraduate study, I am certainly not in a financial position to service the full (inflated) cost of modules at £1,000 pound per piece.  However, I am in a position that I would be willing and have time available to study (no wife or kids!) – and would have been willing to contribute time, some money & lost income.

I also don’t think that my employer would be best positioned to support this development activity. As it stands, many Isle of Man firms are being forced to rationalise funding of core personnel development. Raising my competitiveness to a market they do not currently service would not be in their interest.

When the only option is the Open University in the Isle of Man and amass further indebtedness or repay current debts, get a hobby and don’t study – it becomes an obvious choice.

Ultimately,

  • I’m a keen advocate of education.
  • I see CPD as a necessity.
  • I also see that the Isle of Man acts as a barrier to language education
  • I believe they have a role as a facilitator
  • I think things should change.
  • (I do not believe the onus is solely on them alone)
  • I think the Isle of Man would benefit from a changed arrangement

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