Protests fail to save East Asian studies

October 3, 2003

The atmosphere was sombre this week at Durham University's department of East Asian studies. Despite very public protestations from former cabinet ministers, senior diplomats, eminent academics and the business community, the department is now certain to be abolished when the final cohort of students graduates in four years' time.

Since closure was mooted in June, the university executive has received some 700 letters from supporters of the department, which produces about 15 per cent of the country's graduates in Japanese and Chinese.

The university said the decision taken by council on Tuesday, which also spells the end of linguistics at Durham, will release resources and student places from areas with relatively low potential so they can be reinvested in the "very best" of Durham's teaching and research areas, which include geography, chemistry, history, English, maths and law.

Staff in the department, however, fear that the cash-driven decision will have damaging international consequences by irreparably diminishing Britain's historical links with East Asia.

"They think we are peripheral, small, inconsequential and esoteric. Somehow we don't fit the Durham brand image," said John Weste, a lecturer in Japanese history. He, like many in the department, believes Britain's supply of young East Asian experts who are able to play an active role in diplomacy, commerce and culture will be seriously lacking in future.

The study of East Asian languages is booming in schools, according to department head Don Starr, who has been at Durham for 30 years.

"There are about 9,000 secondary-school students learning Japanese and Chinese, but just as the market starts to increase - we have had our biggest ever student intake this year - we are being cut off," he said.

The problem, according to Professor Starr, is that his brand of specialist language teaching is expensive and labour intensive, and leaves little time or resources for research. The department was rated 4c in the research assessment exercise. Durham aims to raise all its departments to 5/5*.

"Add to this fact a kind of postcolonial cultural arrogance and the academic subject very quickly becomes weakened," Professor Starr said.

"Closing this department does nothing for Britain's image abroad and proves the university feels no national obligation to support language study."

He said that area studies were out in favour of specialist studies. This was despite the US experience post 9/11. "Suddenly America is finding it is very dangerous to rely on local informants, and interest in area studies has mushroomed because of the new intelligence requirement. But once you drop a highly specialised subject, the reinvestment required to build it up again is prohibitive," he said.

The university insisted the teaching of Chinese and Japanese languages would continue in some form, but Professor Starr equated this to replacing a medical school with first-aid classes.

"We view these plans as detrimental to Durham's good reputation in the field," he said.

The university said its strategic improvement programme would be implemented over three to four years, with the aim of achieving a coherent academic portfolio and a sustainable financial position by focusing on a narrower range of activities because resources were currently spread too thinly.

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