Many language degrees include an extra year abroad – and there are fears that students will not want to pay up to £36,000 for a four-year course.
The organisation representing language departments is asking ministers for a fee subsidy for the extra year.
The government says it has ordered a review of support for modern languages.
But the University Council for Modern Languages is worried that students will be expected to apply for courses without knowing whether they will be charged the full price for four years.
The group’s chairman, Prof James Coleman, says that at present many students on four-year courses have subsidised fees for the year abroad – with these subsidies paid through the funding council to universities.
But there has still not been any clarification on what will happen to about 17,000 language students when the fee system is changed in 2012.
Language departments want the government to fly the flag for their subjects
Prof Coleman is writing to Universities Minister David Willetts calling for a waiver on fees for a year abroad.
“The government urgently needs to make a statement that they will support a year abroad and to moderate the impact of higher fees,” says Prof Coleman.
“Potential students are already looking at courses,” he says.
Prof Coleman says universities and students will need to know by the summer the detail of what support will be available.
He says students must be told “they will not be financially penalised for taking a four-year language degree”.
In response, a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills spokesperson said: “The government recognises the important contribution of modern languages to our university system.
“We have asked the Higher Education Funding Council for England to review what support modern languages, and other strategic and vulnerable subjects, should receive from 2012.”
But language departments are worried that there needs to be a more rapid response – otherwise students might opt to avoid languages.
Baroness Coussins, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on languages, is to voice her concern in the House of Lords this week.
Essex University is taking its own action – with plans to fund its own subsidy when fees are increased, so that language students will not pay any fees for the extra fourth year.
“The reason for the nil fee for the year abroad is that we wish to encourage students to take advantage of the opportunity to study abroad, because international experience… makes them more mature, more employable, more confident and independent, and more culturally aware.”
University language departments are already under pressure, with concerns about a lack of applications.
The University of the West of England is currently consulting on withdrawing all modern language courses.
“We have subsidised this area for many years in the hope it would bounce back but this doesn’t appear to be the case. Strategically we need to meet other student demand,” said a university spokesperson.
University language departments have been affected by the diminishing number of school students taking A-levels and GCSEs in modern languages.