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‘Callous, horrendous, catastrophic, myopic… unforgivable’ : Alumni criticise language propsals

Updated: Dec 7, 2023

UoA alumni slam plans to cut language and culture programmes at the University

By Andrew Cardno

‘Callous, horrendous, catastrophic, myopic… unforgivable’

These are many of the words that have been used to describe the University of Aberdeen’s recent decision to take its language degrees to the chopping board.

In the wake of a £15million deficit, the looming fallout of Brexit and its impact on international students – which bring increased fees – and the out of touch decision making of the top brass, we now face a prestigious university with no language department (or a severely lacklustre one).

Speaking to Gaelic-speaking poet and writer Marcas Mac an Tuairneir, who studied the language at UoA, we were able to gain more information on the importance of the University to the study and propagation of the language.

Gaelic is imbedded in the culture of the University – in fact if you’re walking in through the front gate, you will be greeted by it – and the research carried out at Aberdeen has been vitally important to the field of Gaelic studies, Mac an Tuairneir told us.

Gaelic is seen as a minoritized language and has recently seen an uptick in support from the Scottish government; the Gaelic language plan from 2022 – 2027 illustrates how the Scottish government is committed to encouraging and enabling more people to use Gaelic more often and in a wider range of situations.

Gaelic has been a part of the University since it was founded in 1495, with its first Gaelic lecturer being hired over 100 years ago in 1916.

The language is considered as under-threat by UNESCO with only 58,552 speakers – it classifies as definitely endangered. This is why it is vital that we see representation of minoritized languages within education, if the university decides to axe the Gaelic programme it will put the language further under threat.

The University's Celtic Society has proven a vital force in attracting people to the Gaelic language, said Mac an Tuairneir, with people not even studying it as part of their degree gravitating towards the society.

The society has improved engagement with Gaelic at a community wide level as well as within the student body. Removing the language department and as a result Gaelic will only help to further jeopardise this already endangered language.

This is the university equivalent of finding the last Dodo, only to kick it off a cliff.

A number of other UoA graduates told us about their anger and disappointment over the University's proposal.

Blair Bowman, a 2013 Hispanic Studies graduate & well-known whisky broker, has said he will not be donating any money to the University until the decision is reversed.

He told us: “I am deeply disappointed with the university's recent decision to potentially close the Modern Languages Department. This decision is short-sighted and will have a devastating impact on students, faculty, and the wider community. The department has a long and distinguished history of providing high-quality education in a wide range of languages. It is also a valuable resource for the community, providing language translation services and cultural programming. I urge the university to reconsider this decision and save the Modern Languages Department.” Sarah Eggleton, a 2021 LLMVC graduate added:

“I'm really appalled to be honest, that a whole subject area could just be shut down. I work in higher education and am aware of the financial pressures faced by universities, but to jump to a course of action that is so impactful to staff particularly is astonishing. To target a humanities subject area is especially disheartening, in a time when UoA should be defending the relevance of the subject areas, when modern languages departments in schools already cannot get the uptake that they need.

"If SMT can be this callous about languages, I fear for other arts and humanities subjects."

Dr Greg Herman, a three-time graduate of the French department and Senior lecturer in French at Swansea University, told us:

“Having spent over ten years as a student embedded in the heart of what was then the School of Language and Literature, the termination of language programmes at the University of Aberdeen is particularly gut-wrenching.

"First, I mourn for the staff, many of whom once taught me and whom I now consider colleagues and friends. Second, I mourn for the future generations of students, forever to be denied the same opportunities as I enjoyed not so very long ago.

"Finally, I mourn for the University itself: its self-proclaimed desire to ‘go beyond boundaries’ belied by the callous managerial bean-counting of a few inflated egos, amongst which the UK’s most senior Germanist by institutional role.

“Arguably, the study of languages has never been more important, both for the ability to communicate across borders, and for the cultural awareness - of both others’ and one’s own culture - that is so intrinsic to their study.

"To cut languages reeks of short-termism, desperation and betrays a lack of vision on the part of the university’s leaders: indeed, it is an egregious act of self-harm with regards the culture, reputation, and purpose of an ancient university.

"Whilst many others have already outlined the devastating impact this move will have on the region - in terms of trade, education, policy and politics - further ahead, one can only wonder where and on whom the next axe will fall.” Ashleigh, a UoA graduate who lives in the North East, added: "I am very shocked and disappointed to hear about the news that the Modern Languages department at Aberdeen University is at risk. When deciding upon a career at Academy, Aberdeen Uni was one of the universities that I aimed to attend for the 4-year degree of German in the aims to become a modern language teacher within Aberdeenshire.

“This isn't just a short-term solution, this will affect the lives of many - including current teaching staff, and those still in school with an interest in languages who want to communicate with the world. And may affect the future of Modern Languages in Scotland."

A 2002 graduate of the University, who asked to remain anonymous, told us:

“It is disgraceful that UoA is choosing to turn its back on local young people in favour of lucrative international student recruitment - they have a mission of service to their community, not make money.

“My daughter at her Aberdeen secondary school had four French teachers last year due to shortages (only two were qualified); the UoA SMT will be actively contributing to the killing off of modern language teaching in Scottish secondary schools if they stop training those who can teach languages.

“Treatment of ML staff has been very poor; potentially in breach of the university’s own mental health and wellbeing policy and certainly void of any best practice in stakeholder communication & engagement re organisational change.”

Another language alumna told us:

"I think for me as an alumni, I find it sad that this will not only affect students and staff, but also future generations in the community. I was a volunteer in 2020 in a primary school here in Aberdeen, teaching French and about languages / culture / living abroad. It's part of the city's 1+2 language programme, so without language students, the pupils won't be inspired to study languages anymore, and the teaching staff in primary schools sometimes don't even have any or qualified language teachers as is. They teach themselves basicsand hope for the best. That would all be eliminated as well.

"I'm currently working as a freelance translator and I've obviously not only learnt the languages but also the professionalism and cultural aspects which are now very important to me when I deal with clients. Also time management. Language students usually have a higher amount of contact hours and work to do during their studies, in teams as well. And those qualities (time management, meeting deadlines, working in teams and knowing how to speak in different situations, negotiating with clients) are all things I learned through interpreting or the wisdom and advice of my professors over the years."

Sorrel Reid, another language graduate, added:

"As a recent graduate in MA German Studies from the University of Aberdeen, it is disturbing to hear of the proposed cuts knowing that this would mean the loss of exceptional teaching staff and opportunities for future generations of students, at a time when both language learning and cultural knowledge have become more important than ever. I have always been proud of my university, but am beyond disappointed by its short-sighted decision-making now."

Dr Fiona Noble, a University alumna and Lecturer in Spanish at the University of Stirling said:

"It is difficult to put into words just how devastated I am at the decision by university management at Aberdeen to attack Modern Languages. I have personal connections to Modern Languages at Aberdeen, having studied French, German, and Hispanic Studies in my first year, before pursuing a Joint Honours undergraduate degree in French and Hispanic Studies. I also completed my PhD in Hispanic Studies and Film and Visual Culture at Aberdeen and worked as a Teaching Assistant in the Hispanic Studies department. I have taught French, Spanish, and German in secondary schools in the northeast of Scotland and am now a Lecturer in Spanish and Latin American Studies at the University of Stirling.

"The decision to shut down Modern Languages at Aberdeen is unfathomable. As an ancient institution with global ambitions, removing languages degree programmes and reducing language instruction to optional modules only available in early years (as is management’s alleged preferred option) demonstrates, at best, a misinformed lack of intercultural awareness, and, at worst, a neocolonial disregard for non-Anglophone cultures and contexts. According to the University’s own mission statement (available here on the website), it aims to power change ‘for better businesses and better lives through research engaging global societal challenges, and by developing new and impactful leaders and entrepreneurs with an ethical and international mindset’, whilst its vision is cited as the desire ‘to be internationally recognised for […] connecting change-makers, entrepreneurs and strategic thinkers in the world’s energy cities’. How management expect that to happen in a framework where languages and intercultural communication and understanding are removed is, frankly, beyond me. "


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