Aberdeen set to close language degrees as recruitment nosedives

Union pledges to fight ‘academic vandalism’ being consulted on by Scottish university

November 30, 2023
The University of Aberdeen
Source: iStock

The University of Aberdeen is considering abolishing its degree courses in modern languages in light of a “steep fall” in student recruitment over recent years.

Announcing a review of its modern languages provision on 30 November, the Scottish university said it would consult on a number of options following “particularly low recruitment to undergraduate modern languages programmes at Aberdeen in September 2023”.

Just 27 full-time equivalent (FTE) students this autumn joined the university’s languages programmes, which include French, Gaelic, German and Spanish, compared with 46 in 2022 and 62 in 2021, it said.

“High staff numbers (37 staff – 28.83 FTE) relative to student numbers means that income does not cover even the direct costs of staff delivering modern languages provision before any central costs (such as library, IT, student services, estates)” are considered, the university continued, adding that the subject was on course to have a projected deficit of £1.6 million in 2023-24.

This reflected a “steep fall in the numbers of undergraduates studying modern language degrees UK-wide and at Aberdeen and low numbers of postgraduates studying languages”, it continued.

“This is a long-term trend despite significant efforts by staff at the university and national initiatives over many years to halt the decline in uptake of modern languages in secondary schools and higher education,” Aberdeen added.

The university will consult on three options, which include: discontinuing single honours degrees in languages but still offering joint honours provision in “three or two languages”; closing single and joint honours programmes “but retain[ing] a suite of ‘with language’ programmes (for example, international business with French)”; or closing “all programmes which have a named language component but continue to offer language courses that could be taken by students as elective courses where this can be accommodated in their degree programme”.

“It is the firm intention that the university will continue to offer students the opportunity to learn languages at the university, and all three of the options set out in the consultation will ensure this is the case,” it said.

Commenting on the consultation plans, Karl Leydecker, Aberdeen’s senior vice-principal, who will chair a languages steering group, said it was “deeply regrettable that the provision of modern languages at the university is unsustainable in its current form, with low and falling numbers of students”.

“The steering group looks forward to engaging with the school to explore the options through the process of consultation before reaching final conclusions on our future provision,” he said.

However, the proposed cuts have been condemned by the University and College Union (UCU), whose general secretary, Jo Grady, said staff were “shocked, angry and disappointed at the news that their jobs are at risk and that modern language provision could be drastically reduced at the university”.

“The provision of modern language degrees is a critical part of enabling an open and outward-facing culture that engages with communities across the globe,” said Dr Grady.

“This move by Aberdeen is part of broader pattern that is developing, of deep cuts and closures of whole departments, especially in arts and humanities, which can also be seen in places like Oxford Brookes and Staffordshire. UCU stands with all those threatened. We will not allow members to be picked off, we will fight for them and beat this academic vandalism.”


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