Backlash grows against Aberdeen language cuts

Thousands sign petition opposing plans to close degree programmes as university court meets to discuss whether to put plans on hold

December 12, 2023
Source: iStock

Nearly 13,000 people have signed a petition against plans to cut modern language degrees at the University of Aberdeen as the institution’s governing body meets to discuss the proposals amid a growing backlash.

Last month Aberdeen launched a consultation on its languages provision after a drop in student numbers, with closing all single and joint honours programmes one of the options under consideration, leaving languages taught only as elective modules.

All options would involve “the end of research in the languages at Aberdeen and significant job losses”, says the petition started by academics at the university.

It adds that, if allowed to proceed, programmes that have been in place for more than a century including French, German, Gaelic and Spanish would be “destroyed” and Aberdeen would be left as the only ancient university in the world that does not offer language degrees.

“Withdrawal of the languages, translation and interpreting degrees could well be a false economy as it would also have profound, long-term consequences for league table placement, recruitment of joint honours students and equality of educational access across the north of Scotland,” the petition says. 

Last week Aberdeen’s senate voted in support of a motion that called for the consultation to be paused to allow more time to consider the academic impact of the proposed cuts. The university’s court is meeting on 12 December to discuss whether to take this forward.

The University and College Union (UCU) and Aberdeen University Students’ Association held a rally on the eve of the vote with UCU’s general secretary, Jo Grady, telling those present that the plans amounted to “academic vandalism”. She highlighted how Aberdeen was one institution among many seeking to cut jobs and provision of late, with Oxford Brookes and Staffordshire universities also announcing cost-saving measures in the past month. 

“Teaching and research in modern languages is an integral part of a university,” Dr Grady said. “These plans could leave Aberdeen as the only ancient university in the UK to not offer modern language degrees which says much about management at the University of Aberdeen, and their lack of ambition for the university and north-east Scotland.

“We know from the many interventions from European consulates, politicians, professional bodies, staff and senators, and from students that modern languages at Aberdeen is valued and that the staff that deliver that work should be invested in rather than face losing their jobs.”

Also addressing the rally, Maggie Chapman, the member of the Scottish Parliament for the north-east region, said she was “very concerned” by the proposals.

“I think it sends exactly the wrong message for what should be the comprehensive university for the north-east of Scotland,” she added.

“The University of Aberdeen has a civic duty to the city and to the wider region to be an institution that covers all academic disciplines, providing rigorous and really important degree programmes for students from the region, and equipping the next generation with the skills and tools that are going to be so necessary as we try to deal with the global crises we face.”

Ms Chapman said staff members had received notices of redundancy in the run-up to Christmas and university management should “feel shame” for the way staff and students have been treated.

Aberdeen has said its languages provision is unsustainable and was projected to make a loss of £1.5 million in 2023-24.

Just 27 full-time equivalent students were recruited for this academic year, down from 62 in 2021, while the university has 28 full-time equivalent staff members teaching on the programmes.

“The university absolutely understands how passionately colleagues, students and many members of the wider public feel about modern languages including Gaelic,” a spokesperson said.

They added that the university “has always made clear that it will continue to teach and value languages, and we are grateful to all those who are sending us their views and ideas on how we can do this in a sustainable way”.

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