Isis shows ‘Oriental studies’ are essential

The University of Manchester could not have chosen a worse time to consider closing Middle Eastern language courses, writes Hugh Williamson

February 19, 2015

While Middle Eastern tongues may be minority subjects in terms of demand, you have only to open a newspaper to grasp the height of strategic demand

As Islamic State (Isis) plumbed even greater depths of depravity with the burning alive of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh, the crucial importance of doing all we can to understand the Middle East became ever clearer.

In this context, recent news that the University of Manchester is considering closing Turkish, Persian and modern Hebrew programmes seems particularly jolting. Yet, to those of us long associated with what is still sometimes called Oriental studies, it has a depressingly familiar ring.

Without my knowing the details of the Manchester decision, it hardly needs saying that the languages concerned relate to countries of high strategic importance. Turkey is a member of Nato, an applicant for membership of the European Union and is located on the front line with Syria. If there is one country through which we might hope to be able to advance some of our most pressing international concerns in a rational and humane manner, then it is surely Turkey. Analogous claims could be made for Persian and modern Hebrew, regardless of how much sympathy we have for the modern states of Iran and Israel.

In 1992 and 1996, I chaired the Middle Eastern and African studies subpanel in the research assessment exercise. Manchester always scored well, partly because it taught these and other languages (such as Arabic) in an integrated manner. The languages of the Middle East cannot sensibly be dealt with in isolation because, historically, they are all so closely intertwined, through both religion and politics. As a panel, however, we reported that the teaching of Turkish in the UK was in a parlous condition, limited to four and then to three universities. Now it is set to reduce further.

These concerns are not historically unprecedented. After the Second World War, it was agreed that some knowledge of many different languages was necessary for various national purposes, including commerce, diplomacy and intelligence. So the Scarborough Report on Oriental, Slavonic, East European and African Studies, published in 1947, sought to ensure adequate teaching provision, saying that it should not all be left to Soas, University of London, important though that similar initiative from an even earlier generation remained.

But the 1961 Hayter Report noted a decline in provision and recommended a strongly “area studies” approach, with full provision for social science as well as the humanities. However, by the 1980s, things were declining again, so the 1986 Parker Report, commissioned by the Foreign Office, recommended a further injection of resources.

This sequence is obvious when you think about it. After 20 or 30 years, the people hired on the back of the previous cash injection retire and each university decides that the political scientists, anthropologists and geographers focused on the Middle East could be better replaced – in terms of responding to student demand – by colleagues with a more domestic focus. That seems sensible until you realise that it tends to be the same subjects that suffer in each university. And so the cry goes up for another report to rectify things.

There is also a newer problem. For a couple of decades, the Higher Education Funding Council for England awarded special funding to support the teaching of important languages that attracted only a small cohort of undergraduates. But, in the £9,000 fees era, the only remaining Hefce funding for “strategic and vulnerable” subjects relates to what one might call peripheral concerns, such as boosting recruitment, rather than supporting teaching and research itself. The result is that my faculty (Oriental studies) has lost hundreds of thousands of pounds of income annually. It certainly makes the university think hard about priorities.

I should also enter a further consideration. When I chaired the local faculty board years ago, some colleagues in the sciences became excited about cooperation (which also meant large sums of money) with an important Asian country. However, our teaching covered that country only tangentially, alongside its neighbours, and it was made clear to us that Oxford needed to show more cultural interest if approaches from the science side were to be successful. This gives the lie to the smug feeling that everyone now speaks English, so we do not need to bother with language learning and all that goes with it.

A lot of attention has been paid to the decline of language provision, and the British Academy runs a lively programme to highlight the need for language study and to encourage greater take-up in schools and universities. But the focus has inevitably tended to concentrate on European languages. While Middle Eastern tongues may be minority subjects in terms of undergraduate demand, you have only to open a newspaper to see that the strategic demand for them could hardly be higher. We cannot let the UK’s expertise in them die some Isis-style death by a thousand cuts.

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Reader's comments (2)

This piece is a timely reminder that 'market forces' which are dominating the HE landscape in terms of ranges of programmes of study available, are failing the sector in relation to strategically important disciplines.
I am an academic at the University of Manchester and sit on 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. A day or two later, I happened to hear Rory Stewart MP (and Chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee) on the Radio 4 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 the University 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 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, but, bizarrely, Rory Stewart was on Today again the next morning, saying we need to improve our "deep understanding" of the Middle East in order to oppose ISIS. Since then I have also listened on BBC iPlayer to an interview he gave on its Hardtalk programme in January, in which he said the British foreign services do not have enough "deep linguistic knowledge" and "area expertise" of the region – in other words, just the kind of knowledge and expertise the University of Manchester has provided for over 150 years and which will soon be lost.

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