Lawrence M. Knowles discovers a Welshman who dreams of a Welsh-speaking campus
Ioan Williams has a dream. It is to reinvent the University of Wales as the re-embodiment of the "medieval Welsh universitas". In this universitas he would direct department heads to appoint Welsh speakers and to build a Welsh dimension into research programmes. Departments failing to develop a Welsh perspective, suggests Williams, might not be "appropriate".
Most of his colleagues would dismiss such a vision as eccentric. But Williams, head of Welsh medium studies at the university college in Aberystwyth, one of seven institutions making up the University of Wales, says that if the university will not accept the challenge of creating a Welsh version of itself, "then let us set up our own".
Earlier this century the Welsh language seemed on a freefall to oblivion. The proportion of Welsh speakers in the population dropped from barely half in 1900 to under a third in 1950. By 1980 it was below 20 per cent. The 1991 British census, however, suggests that predictions of the imminent demise of Welsh are premature. The percentage of Welsh speakers fell negligibly in the 1980s, from 18.9 to 18.6 per cent. Signs abound that the language is making a comeback.
The renaissance is most evident in schools. About half of secondary school students are taught Welsh as a first or second language. Once relegated to remote areas, Welsh schools are turning up everywhere, including the populous south where the language seemed dead. Welsh is becoming fashionable.
Emyr Wyn Francis left one of the new secondary schools, where all subjects are taught in Welsh, to attend the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. He assumed he would be able to continue his studies in Welsh. After all, he has enrolled at one of the few national institutions of Wales, founded at Aberystwyth 125 years ago with the pennies of coal miners and slate quarriers. How could it not be Welsh-speaking? Yet, while there is a Welsh department at Aberystwyth, the language of academic discourse is overwhelmingly English. Francis, outgoing president of the Welsh Students Union, says he was naive. "The University of Wales," he now understands, "is probably the only national university in the world where the majority of students come from outside the country".
In fact 80 per cent come from outside Wales. Cynog Dafis, Plaid Cymru's education spokesman, says: "For Wales, higher education is an export commodity." Scotland's education system, by contrast, is out-of-step with England's, which helps keep Scottish students in and English students out. One Welsh student said: "If a Scottish university had more than 10 per cent of its students from England there would be riots."
Yet despite the surge in Welsh medium provision in schools, with 17,000 students annually sitting GCSEs in Welsh, only 1,700 do their A levels in Welsh and, of those, only 700 are doing subjects other than the Welsh language. That is less than the incoming class at Aberystwyth alone.
In the 1950s, language activists urged the university to establish a Welsh medium college. In response, the university initiated a programme to appoint Welsh medium lecturers in disciplines other than the language. Over three decades, 38 posts were created, divided between Aberystwyth and Bangor. But few departments moved beyond one or two positions. In 1992 the programme was abandoned. Richard Wyn Jones, a Welsh medium lecturer in international politics at Aberystwyth, says his is the only department in Wales to experience growth in Welsh medium provision this decade, with first-year students tripling in number from ten to 30-plus.
University administrators like to talk up the appeal of their exotic, bilingual environment. Lately they have been more concerned to reassure parents of prospective English students that their offspring will not be attacked by the savage Welsh. In 1996, Welsh students blocked the Queen's motorcade during a visit to Aberystwyth, forcing the cancellation of her opening of a glaciology centre.
The incident revived old prejudices. Sarah Martin, president of the Bangor Welsh students union, sometimes senses a "patronising attitude" towards Welsh speakers. She describes being brought out for visitors, "paraded around by university officials as a token Welsh speaker, some kind of trick pony," almost as if to say, "look, we've managed to educate one of them". The existence of separate Welsh residence halls at Aberystwyth and Bangor is a mixed blessing. It is probably the only way the students could socialise in a Welsh-speaking environment, but Martin says it fosters a "ghetto mentality".
The University of Wales is often accused of having a "British" rather than a Welsh perspective. It reminds me of American universities that began as Bible colleges. They feel obliged to give nodding acknowledgement to their religious heritage, but would not want academic peers to think they took that religious stuff seriously. Perhaps the university's ambivalent attitude to Welsh is an accurate reflection of the state of the language today. Derec Llwyd Morgan, principal at Aberystwyth, admits: "It is hyperbole to say that Wales is a bilingual country, even for the 20 per cent of the population that speaks Welsh." Welsh is a sort of pet second language, a heritage language. Even its most passionate supporters know it will never have equal status with English. Parents may be happy for their children to learn Welsh in school, but when it is time to go to university, people put Welsh back on the shelf, gently perhaps, but safely out of the way.
* Is Welsh spoken here?