Universities will have to tell the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), which distributes public money to higher education, if they plan to axe a language course.
The SFC would then decide whether the closure harmed the overall provision and range of languages taught in Scotland.
If it deemed that it did, considering factors such as potential economic impact, the council would try to resolve the matter with the university in question – although it has no power to overturn its decision.
Hugh McMahon, former Labour MEP and a campaigner for languages at both secondary and higher levels, said: “It is a step forward, but protected funding, as they have in England and Wales, is the only long-term solution that will make a difference.”
The new measure is part of guidance to universities on “outcome agreements” on what the higher education sector is expected to provide in return of more than £1 billion of public money.
However, the Universities and Colleges Union said that only protected funding would safeguard languages, which have been in sharp overall decline in recent years. They are no longer compulsory between S1 and S4 – with German and French particularly hard hit and no more funding of native language assistants in the state sector. This has had a knock-on effect on university provision.
Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, said it was vital that universities continued to have the freedom to decide what subjects to deliver according to their own “mission, strengths and demand”.
The council would have to work with universities, not against them, to achieve a balance, he said.
The Scottish government has tried to address language learning in primary and secondary schools with a range of schemes. However, Sue Gruellich, chair of the Scottish Tourist Guides Association, said the results were too patchy.
“A decreasing number of school pupils presenting themselves for exams at Higher or Intermediate level results in a decreasing number applying to university courses in languages,” she wrote in the Scotsman.