Monday, 8 February 2010

The Future of Modern Languages in the University

Debunking the Michael Worton HEFCE Review of October 2009

What lies ahead for the Departments of Modern Foreign Languages in universities in the UK? How does the teaching and research of these diverse and multifaceted departments contribute to the future? These departments, commonly referred to as “language departments”, do more than the name suggests. Surely then, whatever future they may have should be based on the rich heritage of their disciplines, the diverse national and multi-national identities that they bring together, and the complex interdisciplinarity they embrace, even in a single language department such as German or Italian. Some departments even teach subjects relating to many countries of the world.  French and Francophone Studies Departments, for example, may have the roots of one foreign language at the base of what they teach, but such departments bring together specialists in French and Francophone Literature, History, Politics, Sociology, Film Studies, and Linguistics—as well as highly trained specialists in language acquisition relating to the languages that lie at the core of that discipline. Spanish and Latin American Studies Specialists may unite scholars and teachers of Spanish and Portuguese as well as the literature, history, and culture of countries speaking these languages. Scandinavian Studies brings together interdisciplinary specialists in Literature, History, Culture, Film—and several languages. Few Modern Foreign Languages departments can be narrowed to an area—whether Europe or South America—since the disciplines and the fields often expanded in relation to the language and its speakers’ cultures and for French Studies, for example, that means every continent on the globe.

Every single Department of Modern Foreign Languages in the UK is already part of a vast network of research and teaching professionals who give the "Languages Department" its identity and help to develop its significance for the future. The disciplines owned by these Language Departments often have an established history of international and national professional organisations, journals, conferences, book series, websites, collaborations, networks, and research projects. This history secures these Departments which are by nature so interdisciplinary their own place in the academic world.  

What then should lie ahead for these Departments? Is that even the question that one should be raising right now?  Regardless of whether that is the question scholars, teachers, and students in those departments are asking, it is one that has been asked for them and that is being imposed on them by new UK government mandates for the notoriously small allocations of university funding. The HEFCE report on "The Future of Modern Languages in the University" written by Michael Worton and published online in October 2009 imposes its version of those questions and does so in ways that are all the more likely to transform the future of UCL's Modern Foreign Languages Departments, as Worton is UCL's vice provost.

What then does Michael Worton think the future of Modern Languages Departments in the UK should be?  In the foreword to the document published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England in October 2009, Michael Worton, UCL Vice-Provost, sums up the goals of the Review he was asked to undertake on their behalf: ‘The intention was that I would undertake a broadbrush review of the health of Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) in English higher education, taking into account policy and other developments over the past few years in order to make recommendations on how the long-term sustainability and vitality of MFL provision in higher education could be assured.’ Tellingly, Worton is concerned here with ‘taking into account policy and other developments… in order that the sustainability and vitality of MFL provision could be assured.’ The changes in policy to which he refers here explicitly relate to the allocation of government funding for UK universities—a funding policy that has erupted in extensive recent controversy, especially since announcements in December 2009 that higher education would suffer the greatest cuts of any sector receiving public funding for the years to come. Even before these cuts were announced, however, controversy surrounded the development of the new Research Excellence Framework (REF), which has replaced the Research Assessment Exercises (RAE), the latter based solely on the research itself, taking into account as Stefan Collini explains, ‘the number of publications per member of staff, plus information about the “research environment” of the department (measures for encouraging and supporting research, including for PhD students) and evidence of “esteem” (forms of scholarly recognition, professional roles and honours)’( ). The new REF procedure includes a new element, which will make up 25% of the score for each department, which is now based on what the government calls ‘impact’--that is to say, ‘where institutions and researchers have built on excellent research to deliver demonstrable benefits to the economy, society, public policy, culture or quality of life.’ (

The message given by the government’s demand for ‘IMPACT’ is that it is not worth investing in research unless that research will provide an immediate and measurable economic benefit. The perturbing implications of this policy have caused widespread criticism, particularly from the vantage point of the arts and humanities, whose researchers will be less readily able to prove the economic impact of, say, a piece of literary analysis, than would a medical researcher testing pharmaceutical products and publishing results in a scientific journal. With these new REF criteria in place, the UK University will become a machine for producing the results that the Government seeks, as opposed to an independent entity for critical thought, discourse, and reflection. Measuring ‘impact’ will bring an end to all research and teaching that can’t be justified easily in terms of simple economic, social or public benefit. Influential humanities scholar Bill Readings criticized in The University in Ruins such an exercise of ranking ‘excellence’ and quality by pointing out how questionable are most measures of this kind: ‘A number of things are obvious about this exercise, most immediately the arbitrary quality of the weighting of factors and the dubiousness of such quantitative indicators of quality’(Readings, 25).

In his ‘Review of Modern Foreign Languages Provision in Higher Education in England,’ Worton’s advice to Modern Languages Departments seems to be shaped and governed by this new policy of assessing ‘impact.’ The nature of the proposed changes for so-called ‘Languages Departments’ threaten the very essence of the disciplines as well as the process of learning a language in an academic context. Worton’s Review proposes a watered-down content based on the flat and all-encompassing notion of ‘cultural studies’.

The proposed ‘Modern Languages Review’ at UCL, made available internally to staff and students on Friday 5 February 2010, not only cites Worton’s HEFCE report but seems to mirror many of its concerns and preoccupations. It puts forth a heavy-handed administrative overhaul that will lead, short-term, to losses and downgrading of administrative posts, centralisation of the all language department’s administration, and long-term, if one can interpret its allusions to a largely unexplained ‘phase 2,’ to significant and worrying curricular changes. Consultation ends on the 12 March, barely five weeks after the documents were opened to discussion. We might want to consider how what Worton puts forth in his Modern Languages Review for HEFCE relates to what the committee on which he was a member now intends, which is through the UCL ‘Languages Review,’ to change the Departments of Dutch, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Latin American Studies, and Scandinavian Studies at UCL. So what are the items for concern?

Worton acknowledges in his HEFCE report that the concern that Modern Languages Departments will be disadvantaged when trying to prove their viability if the REF: ‘A number of respondents were also concerned about the difficulty of measuring “impact” in MFL research, as the Research Excellence Framework looms ahead’(Worton, par. 16).  This seems to relate particularly to how MFL has lost out in funding to the departments that are granted with the ‘STEMM’ provision (namely the sciences). Says Worton: ‘From a national point of view and the need to ensure the healthy development of the UK’s knowledge economy and society, there is clear justification for the protection of STEMM. The MFL community should therefore be working more pro-actively and more reactively to persuade Government that the study of and research into languages are just as important as for STEMM, and MFL colleagues within institutions need to persuade their own institutions of the importance of their work and of the consequent need for investment in them’(par. 100). Worton comments several times in his HEFCE report on the importance of MFL departments ‘coming together’ to prove themselves to the government, with ‘the development of a clear and compelling identity for Modern Foreign Languages in an increasingly competitive higher education context, one which presents a convincing case for the contribution that Languages Departments make to the strategic objectives of their institutions and more widely.’  His message is therefore that MFL Departments have to be ready to justify the importance of their research to the Government, in light of the REF. But how so?

I shall discuss his suggestions in terms of recurring themes: 
  • ‘Relevance’
  • careers and languages as an economic enabler
  • languages courses as accessible to all humanities degrees; MFL as a single or unified discipline
  • Language Centre/ Language Department collaboration
  • The creation of an identity that will persuade the Government of the importance of Modern Language Departments and their subject matter and teaching fields
Worton speaks in his HEFCE report of the importance of ‘relevance’ of modern language teaching: ‘The question of “relevance” remains another thorny issue for many languages colleagues, but in publicly funded universities, it is appropriate that the relevance and fitness for purpose of activities are scrutinised and re-evaluated on an ongoing basis and that attention is paid as to how curricula can respond to changing contexts, be these cultural, political, socio-economic or, indeed, educational. (par. 129)  While one might wish to ask the crucial question of why Languages Departments should have to prove their relevance, Worton seems more concerned with finding a means for them to do so. So how will Language department prove their relevance?

Top of the agenda is curriculum review, says Worton: ‘Departments should review their programmes and courses in terms of both content and modes of delivery in order to ensure that they are appropriate for the global 21st century’ (par. 210). The ‘modes of delivery’ to which he refers are developed through his suggestion that, for example,  ‘It would be good to see more use made of a greater variety of technologies and also of social networking tools in order to reinforce the message that languages are about communication and interconnectedness in the modern world (par. 138).  What’s more, Worton seems to think that teaching texts in the original may no longer be profitable, either intellectually or financially, for UK universities: ‘The issue of teaching literary and other texts in translation is a controversial one, but Language Departments should formulate explicit positions on this as they engage in reconceptualisations and redefinings of the place of Modern Foreign Languages in the university of the 21st century’ (par. 128). What particular Language Department course could be considered inappropriate for the 21st Century? The implications are disturbing, as this suggests that Language Departments and their field are redundant. 

This suggests that to become relevant and worthy in the University today, Language Department courses (such as literature, film, politics and history) must be accessible in translation to everyone who studies the humanities (or maybe even everyone who enters any university). Languages Departments will suddenly be transformed into something akin to what might fit under an amorphous notion of ‘cultural studies.’ Worton contends that ‘Interdisciplinary and interdepartmental collaboration over course delivery appears to be significantly on the rise, probably as a result of the many institutional restructurings, which have incorporated Language Departments in Schools of Languages or of Humanities’ (par. 132). Worton’s description of the changes in Humanities at the university level suggests that he is not bothered by the loss of courses specific to those studying ‘language’ in an academic Department that assumes strong linguistic skills in that foreign language. Instead, he seems to favour courses accessible to all: watered-down ‘contemporary cultural studies’ courses. Worton observes that ‘Programme content is changing, with a pronounced increase in contemporary cultural studies. Several Departments reported an increase in the number of courses which are accessible to non-linguists (e.g. texts in translation)’ (par. 14). What can we make of this observation? What about the periods before the contemporary? What about things that do not fit under the classification ‘cultural studies’? What kind of ‘cultural studies’ is Worton interested in? Does he refer to the discipline known as ‘Cultural Studies’ that was fostered in the UK in the 1960s, or does he mean an all inclusive, convenient hybrid, based on expediency and low costs and formed to encourage everyone to believe it can be delivered with the lowest cost and the greatest ‘impact’?

Worton’s report seems to stop at nothing short of an overhaul of the disciplines that make up Modern Foreign Language Departments in the UK.  He claims that ‘[reconceptualising MFL] would seem to be an important part both of making the case for languages as of national and institutional importance and of preparing for the REF.’ Furthermore, he does not stop there.  He criticizes the departments he is reviewing by claiming they have not looked to the future on their own: ‘[O]verall, there is a sense that Modern Foreign Language Departments tend to respond reactively, rather than innovative pro-actively’ (par. 14). What is his advice for acting pro-actively?  He thinks that Modern Languages Departments should ‘embrace that autonomy as a creative and enabling force. This includes the development of a clear and compelling identity for Modern Foreign Languages in an increasingly competitive higher education context, one which presents a convincing case for the contribution that Languages Departments make to the strategic objectives of their institutions and more widely’ (par. 21).  But what can such an identity mean? 

This will not be an identity related to the national or even multi-national Academic community of language speakers who have forged each of these disciplines that is today found in an Italian or German Department.  It will not be an identity based on shared cultures or histories.  As I have already suggested, the ‘identity’ Worton seems to embrace is one that compromises the values of the disciplines of Languages Departments.  It compromises the importance of teaching foreign languages in context and with specificity to their literatures, histories, and national boundaries. It compromises Foreign Languages as fields by restructuring departments and combining them to make group departments and broader, pick-and-mix degrees.  It compromises the teaching of Foreign Language Departments by stressing the impact that language teaching and research has directly on the economy rather than by embracing language as the discourse underlying the field of, for example, French literary studies, or Spanish and Latin American studies of history.

Worton places great emphasis on combining departments under the pretence that they share the same discipline: ‘A further complexity is raised by the fact that the individual language disciplines seek to define themselves individually, rather than as a single collective discipline. One element that links all of them is their inter-disciplinary nature, yet this very point of commonality raises questions to ‘outsiders’ about the specificity of each language discipline beyond that of the individual language in question. We therefore face the challenge of formulating broad, inclusive and yet also clearly delineated messages about “languages”’ (par. 33). The words ‘broad’ and ‘inclusive’ are key in this excerpt, as they are synonymous with the identity that Worton wishes languages to develop, as an all inclusive part of the Humanities, accessible to anyone, without the prerequisite of knowledge of the language. It furthermore pre-empts the cost cutting administrative centralisation that has been proposed in the Modern Languages Review for UCL’s Modern Languages departments. 

The importance of language learning is justified by Worton in the context of careers. It is also given importance in the scheme of the so-called ‘Language curriculum’: ‘Language Departments should liaise pro-actively with their institutional Careers Services and employers to ensure that skills development is an integral and important part of their programmes at all levels’ (par. 212). The fact that students with language degrees are frequently successful in the job market is used by Worton as an important reason to justify to the Government the funding of language teaching—but not necessarily the teaching of anything except the skills of language acquisition--in Universities. Research in the fields represented by Languages Departments is not, however given the same amount of importance by Worton, suggesting that he sees language teaching and learning only as a means to a purely economic end. What about all the other things Languages Departments do besides teaching people to read and write and speak in business meetings?  Is reading Proust or studying the debates about immigration in France less valuable than learning the subjunctive? Can one hope to achieve business success without the cultural insight that comes from understanding the history of Spanish colonialism or grasping the human rights envisioned for the first time during the French Revolution?  What kind of research should the UK fund in the university? Only the kind that matters in instrumental ways? Is it really so costly to promote disciplines that have existed for decades and that contribute to an understanding of literature, history, society, and values?

Not surprisingly, given his emphases on language training as priorities, Worton is positive about the future of ‘Language Centres’, which exist, usually, as extension programs outside the regular university curriculum, largely for practical language learning.  Unlike Languages Departments which introduce students to the academic discipline of Spanish or Scandinavian Studies while introducing them to the studies of that language, Language Centres teach people who need or want to learn language skills for specific purposes—travel, business, pleasure, as an elective module, etc. Worton encourages more collaboration between Language Centres and Language Departments, criticising the latter for using teachers who lack teaching qualifications while ‘Language Centre teachers are usually properly trained specialist language teachers’ (par. 162). Language Department teachers have different needs: their programme is designed to complement a degree programme, with language skills that further academic discussion and debate. Language Centres, however, are made to fit many different needs, from Evening Classes to practical French for business. Worton’s negative views about Language Department teaching is disturbing because of the implications that his views have on the future of Language Departments at University level, and his failure to acknowledge the very different purpose they serve as opposed to that of Language Centres. It also bares a stark contrast with his positivity about Language Centres, about which he reports a ‘considerable optimism’(par. 158).

Worton’s HEFCE Review ultimately suggests a bleak future for Language Departments by threatening the very principles upon which they are founded. The fact that Language Departments will have to prove the ‘impact’ of their research for the REF means that Modern Languages Departments will be allowed to continue to exist only when they adhere to misguided Government criteria. Such an agenda makes too easy a watering down of fields in the easily bottled potions of ‘cultural studies’ and the elimination of foreign language requirements within Languages Departments.  It permits restructuring that risks depriving scholars of their professional identities and endangers students by forcibly corrupting the legacy of those fields, departments, degree programmes, and identities.  It is ironic that Worton refers to the ‘autonomy’ of these departments and its ‘creative and enabling force’ because, if the recommendations of the HEFCE Review in Modern Foreign Languages are realised, autonomy, creativity, and force are precisely what will be lost.

Works cited:

Stefan Collini, “Impact on humanities” The Times Literary Supplement, 13/11/2009, consulted online at date consulted 8/2/10

Bill Reading, The University in Ruins, Havard University Press, 1997 (second printing)
 “The Research Excellence Framework: A brief guide to the proposals” consulted online at the Higher Education Funding Council for England website at  on 8/2/10

Michael Worton, “Foreign Languages provision in higher education in England” consulted online at the Higher Education Funding for England website at on 8/2/10

No comments:

Post a Comment

Anonymous commenting is available.