A specialism in medieval French knitting is not enough to secure a job and a first-class degree may not win AHRB funding. Pat Leon looks at the problems faced by language departments
Falling student recruitment on language and area studies courses is forcing many university language schools to think creatively about the academic job structures and studentships they offer.
The University of Wales Swansea, for example, is this week advertising a lectureship based in the Centre for Applied Language Studies (Cals), which, together with six language departments, forms the School of Modern Languages.
Jim Milton, centre director, says the post is really a schoolwide appointment. "We would expect a significant proportion of the teaching to be in the linguistics area - translation studies, use of language technology, the study of lexis and so on - but these skills could be applied to any foreign language.
"The line we are taking is to appoint people who can teach across traditional boundaries. In the past you had separate departments of French, German, Spanish, Russian and then linguistics. Realistically these departments are not sustainable - they may only have one or two people in them - but you don't want to lose that language capability or research strength. So we want people who can combine a range of skills."
As students are drawn more towards modules involving film, language and translation studies rather than the traditional canon of European literature, language schools are also having to revamp courses and reward staff who can offer a range of slightly different things, he adds. "An appointment such as this gives the school real strength, it's not like medieval French knitting."
Strathclyde University is welcoming interdisciplinary and overseas student applications for a "limited" number of full-time research studentships in French, Italian and Hispanic studies. Although literature as a specialism is mentioned, so are politics, history, sociolinguistics and lexicology.
Student funding is a problem though, and candidates are advised to apply to the Arts and Humanities Research Board in the first instance but may be considered for a university studentship to pay fees and a stipend.
But Philip Cooke, senior lecturer in the department of modern languages, says: "Many excellent students just do not get funding. We have had difficulties securing AHRB studentships in the past even with students with a first-class degree and a masters nearing completion - hence the advert."
One organisation charged with raising the profile of language learning in the UK is Cilt, the National Centre for Languages. The centre, which was launched in 2003 in the wake of the government's national languages strategy, is seeking a new director to replace acting director Peter Boaks when he retires in September. The appointment is initially for two years while director Lid King finishes his secondment to the Department for Education and Skills as national director for languages.