European universities fight to save rare subjects

Rare disciplines face a multitude of threats but are key to the biodiversity of academia, advocates say

February 14, 2018
Coptic Jesus
Source: Alamy
Outreach: academics in rare subjects such as Coptic studies are often very well connected internationally – they have to seek out colleagues beyond their national borders

As chair of Celtic languages and culture at Utrecht University – the only such position in the Netherlands, and one of just a handful in continental Europe – Peter Schrijver knows what it is like to teach a rare discipline. “There’s always the threat that small subjects might be axed,” he told Times Higher Education.

He has already seen other niche subjects, such as Portuguese, and Sino-Uralic studies, which examines the links between the Uralic language group – Estonian, Finnish and Hungarian – and Chinese, disappear from the Dutch academic landscape.

“Over the past decade, these programmes have become fewer and fewer,” he lamented. Rare subjects, predominantly languages and other humanities, lack the economies of scale of larger disciplines, which puts them in a “vulnerable position” when, as in the Netherlands, universities are partly funded based on their student numbers.

But the Netherlands is one of several European countries taking the threat to rare subjects increasingly seriously. If such disciplines become extinct, their defenders say, the diversity and responsiveness of Europe’s universities could be severely weakened.

Germany leads the way, and has set up a special centre at Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz to track the fate of small disciplines. The centre’s website shows, for example, that the country’s number of professors of Eastern Christian studies has dwindled from four to just one.

Critically endangered: most at risk disciplines in Germany

Albanian studies; Ancient American studies; Archaeozoology; Austronesian studies; Baltic studies; Canadian studies; Caucasus studies; Celtic studies; clinical linguistics; Coptic studies; dance studies; Danish; East Asian art history; Eastern Christian studies; Frisian studies; Indian art history; Iranian studies; Islamic art history; language teaching research; library science; medieval archaeology; Modern Greek studies; Mongolian studies; Netherlands studies; neurolinguistics; papyrology; restoration science; Romanian studies; Semitic studies; Serbian studies; sexology; sign language; speech science; Southeast European studies; Thai studies; Tibetology; Vietnamese studies; Yiddish studies.

Source: Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz

Last December, the German Rectors Conference and representatives of the country’s federal states pledged to protect rare disciplines as an “integral part of the diverse German research landscape”.

There are several threats to rare subjects in Germany, explained Katharina Bahlmann, who works at the Mainz centre. When universities shut down such disciplines, they are sometimes simply unaware of how threatened they are nationwide. “Because we have the autonomy of universities in Germany, we have the fear that this process is uncontrolled,” she said. Hence the need for a nationwide mapping project.

The restructuring of expanding universities has also meant that disciplines often “don’t have their own institutes” any more, she added.

Another concern across Europe is that a growing focus on employability puts students off niche disciplines. “Today’s society tends to steer students to what are perceived as ‘practical and profitable’ subjects,” concluded a conference about rare subjects attended by German, French, Dutch, Polish and Hungarian delegates in 2015. “The vast majority of young students do not ‘choose’ rare disciplines, since they are considered ‘old-fashioned’ and [as] having ‘low employability value’.”

The use of journal impact factors – an average measure of how many citations articles in a particular journal get – to judge the quality of research risks leaving smaller areas behind, they warned. “Rare disciplines can hardly compete in the current funding schemes landscape,” the conference concluded.

Some of these subjects – think Albanian, Church Slavic, or Indo-Germanic studies, which seeks to understand the roots of the German language – also require undergraduates to learn fiendishly difficult languages as part of their course, Dr Bahlmann pointed out, which normally cannot be studied at school.

But action is being taken to preserve the biodiversity of the academic ecosystem. In the Netherlands, explained Professor Schrijver, if a university wants to shut down the last programme of its type in the country, it has to get formal advice from other institutions and the Ministry of Education. “It’s more of a national decision” now, he explained.

Universities in Germany are also very aware of the problem, said Dr Bahlmann; in January, rectors and regional politicians met to address the issue. “We know that they [universities] are looking at our data,” she added. “There is an awareness that we have to act and universities have to focus on this topic.”

Specific funding schemes also exist. Since the late 1980s, the Netherlands has also had a funding stream to support rare and small languages, which provides about €100,000 (£88,290) a year. “It’s very welcome, but it’s not enough to safeguard the future of these languages,” said Professor Schrijver.

Over the last three years, the German state of Baden-Württemberg has allocated €3 million to support rare subjects; discussions are currently ongoing over whether this will continue.

Efforts to protect niche disciplines are also moving to the continental level. There are plans for Poland, France and Germany to map small subjects across Europe, rather like the Mainz centre has done just for Germany.

If rare subjects are allowed to die out, academia will not be able to “respond to changing geopolitical, societal and technological challenges”, as the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research has put it. For example, following the New York attacks of 11 September 2001, Islamic studies has seen an upsurge of interest in Germany as students seek to better understand the religion’s relevance to the modern world, explains Mechthild Dreyer, a professor at the Mainz centre. “There are...historical situations where the interest of students changes,” she said.

Defenders of small subjects argue that you can never predict when their practical usefulness will flash into life. One example of this is ILLICID, a programme initiated by the German government in partnership with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation that draws on arguably hitherto obscure academic knowledge of the ancient societies of modern-day Iraq and Syria to help identify and stop the trafficking of historical artefacts looted by Islamic State.

Advocates for rare subjects also argue that they are particularly interdisciplinary – if you are the only professor in your field you cannot but help work with other disciplines. “If your colleagues...don’t consider you to be a cooperative person, you’re going to be axed,” said Professor Schrijver.

And because they are so few, scholars of small disciplines also tend to be very well connected internationally – they have to seek out colleagues beyond their national borders.

They could also help to serve an increasingly multicultural Europe. Despite a sizeable population of Vietnamese heritage, Germany has just one professor of Vietnamese – Jörg Engelbert, based at the University of Hamburg. His most “secure” stream of undergraduates are German descendants of Vietnamese immigrants, who came to the West as ‘boat people’ after the Vietnam War, and to the East as migrant workers to a fellow communist state.

Yet defenders of rare subjects are keen not to rely on utilitarian arguments alone. “Why do we need to preserve Irish in Ireland?” asked Professor Schrijver rhetorically. Small subjects “contribute to the diversity of life and the world in can‘t be expressed in money”.

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