Voices raised as tongues silenced

Planned cuts to language provision at Swansea draw a chorus of protests. Hannah Fearn reports

September 2, 2010

A university is facing a stream of complaints over cuts to its modern languages department after staff were told of plans to halve the number of academics in the school.

Proposals under discussion at Swansea University would see 22 members of staff chasing just 12 roles, with two posts earmarked for Welsh language lecturers.

In a letter to vice-chancellor Richard B. Davies, Mary Bryden, president of the Association of University Professors and Heads of French, asks Swansea to "reconsider" plans that have caused "dismay and puzzlement" among linguists.

She says the decision runs counter to the recommendations of employers, who say language skills are in demand in the workplace.

"In a field whose importance has been stressed by so many prominent public bodies, it is vital to ... commit resources to attracting and producing these highly employable graduates," she writes.

The University Council of Modern Languages (UCML), the Association for the Study of Modern and Contemporary France, and German language lecturers have also written in protest.

The cuts are the latest blow for modern languages in the UK. Both the University of Leicester and Queen's University Belfast have revealed plans to close their German departments, while last week's GCSE results revealed another fall in the number of students studying a language to the age of 16.

Mike Kelly, executive member and former chair of the UCML, said that the number of universities offering modern languages had halved in the past 10 years and those left were at the "top end" of the spectrum, meaning languages are not available to university applicants who do not achieve top A-level grades.

A decision by the previous Labour government to remove the requirement to study languages to age 16 has also had a devastating effect. Although university participation has boomed, the number choosing to study a language remains static.

Professor Kelly said languages suffer because they cannot easily achieve critical mass. "A French lecturer can't be used to teach German. A department can very easily fall below a viable threshold ... It's a slippery slope, and a fairly short one."

Noel Thompson, pro vice-chancellor for academic development at Swansea, said the proposed restructuring aims to create a single modern languages degree at the university with students studying two or three tongues in parallel. Some courses, such as the MA in translation, could be delivered through distance learning, he added.

He said the cuts were a response to "downward pressure on public spending", but that Welsh-medium teaching was being protected in line with government priorities.


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