Letter: Cull of languages lacked logic

April 27, 2001

You quote a spokesman of the Higher Education Funding Council for England as doubting that universities would agree to regional planning of subject provision because they were autonomous ("Lecturers protest at 2,000 job cuts", THES , April 6).

This highlights a contradiction at the heart of Hefce's method of operating. In December 1999, Sir Brian Fender wrote to all vice-chancellors to express concern about imbalances in modern languages' provision in England. He invited them to contact their regional representatives with a view to submitting bids to Hefce's restructuring and collaboration fund.

Accompanying the letter were statistics giving student numbers by language on a regional basis. The figures were inaccurate or highly selective. The end result was not an avalanche of applications for Hefce money to rationalise provision on a regional basis, but a number of decisions at individual universities to reduce capacity in modern languages.

In other words, Sir Brian's hint at regional rationalisation had the effect of an invitation to fire at will in the direction of one particular subject area.

The end result was a cull guided by genuine exigencies at individual universities but that lacked any regional co-ordination and did not take the national interest into account. This is still going on.

If provision in certain languages reaches a perilously low level, Hefce will of course be there to accept bids to its minority subjects fund, thereby demonstrating that it does occasionally think of the national spread of provision when natural selection leads to unacceptable deficiencies.

Hefce cites the independence of universities when it appears to want a quiet life but is capable of becoming decidedly dirigiste when it suits.

David Head
Department of international business, University of Plymouth

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