Contemporary higher education has become a consumerist affair since student choice was put ‘at the heart of the system’ in 2011 in the UK. This marketization extends universities’ function as an occupational clearinghouse: choice of degree course is assumed to be related to career aspirations. Yet, such expectations of rational career-accounting prove mythical if we consider the declining uptake of modern foreign languages in English-speaking countries. Despite the obvious occupational skills multilingualism offers graduates in a globalized economy, fewer and fewer university consumers opt to study foreign languages. To assess and explain this decline, narrow focus on the contemporary neoliberal university is abandoned here to reflect on a longer-term trend – an ‘academization process’ with origins in 19th-century efforts to widen participation in secondary education. In 1864, the Clarendon Commission responded to criticisms made by industrial elites against the perceived aristocratic ‘elitism’ of public schools. The traditional curriculum organized around classical ‘grammar’ was compelled to give way to instruction in more ‘useful’ forms of knowledge, especially modern foreign languages. Indeed, the conflict between classics versus modern ‘useful’ subjects remained a central axis upon which conservative and progressive educational policy was debated until well into the 1970s. Because these debates ostensibly involved secondary schools, it is easy to miss the legacy of this history, which bears directly upon contemporary higher education. The precipitous decline of foreign language enrolment today can be related to consumerist changes within ‘the neoliberal university’, but equally to that same neoliberal university’s continued efforts to widen participation.