I am an academic at the University of Manchester who also sits on the senate, which has twice discussed the closure of the Middle Eastern studies undergraduate programmes. I did not participate in the first discussion in October, but was unhappy about the decision to close them (“Isis means ‘Oriental studies’ are more relevant than ever”, Opinion, 19 February).
A day or two later, I happened to hear Rory Stewart MP, the chair of the Commons Defence Committee, on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme saying that a lack of people who could speak local languages was a major problem for the British army in Afghanistan and Iraq. It struck me again that Manchester should not be closing down these degrees at a time when the Middle East, an area of the world so important for global peace, is in such turmoil. I therefore put my head above the parapet when the senate met a couple of weeks ago, asking for the decision to be looked at again.
Sadly, my intervention did not have the desired effect. By coincidence, however, Stewart was on Today again the next morning, saying that we need to improve our “deep understanding” of the Middle East in order to oppose Islamic State (Isis). Since then, I have also listened to an interview he gave on the BBC’s HARDtalk in January, in which he said that the British foreign services do not have enough “deep linguistic knowledge” and “area expertise” of the region – the kind of knowledge and expertise that Manchester has provided for more than 150 years but that will soon be lost.