Sunday, 7 February 2010

The Story So Far

UCL has, for the last decade, ridden the knife-edge of its £103million endowment. Despite this year receiving more research funds than either Oxford or Cambridge, it simply hasn’t kept a surplus. Although £100million has been raised from Alumni, this has been ringfenced for infrastructure, debt management and 'affording cuts'. Where the LSE has been able to call on its £43million reserves to guarantee and indeed increase teaching and research until 2015, UCL has little in the way of resources – indeed, it is hoping to ‘save’ £20million this year alone. Trade unions at UCL estimate that this could involve between 200-400 staff redundancies. Already 10 members of staff in Information systems have been faced with losing their jobs (thankfully, this has been reduced to 1 after Union action). Strike action in the near future is a distinct possibility. With HEFCE’s government-mandated STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine and Mathematics) programme already guaranteeing premature protection for costly physical sciences departments, the Humanities were always going to be one of the first under the knife.

So in March 2009, hot on the heels of the Research Assessment Exercise findings for 2008/09, the Modern Languages Review Committee for UCL was launched. With the ostensible aim of helping UCL’s MFL departments improve their research (see: research ratings), the panel - headed by a Provost-appointed Physicist among other moonlighters - set to work. In June that year, they published a baffling report which said little or nothing about improving Modern Languages research.* What it did suggest was a brutal restructuring of departments into a centralised block, including a sea change in curriculum and numerous redundancies. Opposition was fierce, meetings held and finally a two month pre-consultation held – over the summer holiday, when no students were available to voice their concerns. The final report was scheduled to appear in October. It failed to do so. The consultation proper was put off until a later date.

Meanwhile, Vice-Provost (and committee member) Michael Worton published a report for HEFCE (the Higher Education Funding Council for England), a ‘Review of Modern Foreign Languages provision in higher education in England’. The document criticised what he saw as the lack of marketable ‘interdisciplinary’ work by language departments and lauded those HE institutions providing languages as a ‘supplementary skill’. While the report attacked the apparently ‘reactive’ rather than ‘pro-active’ innovation of language departments, Professor Worton concluded the report by proposing, apparently without irony, a series of ‘reactive’ measures – to titanic governmental failure in Secondary school language teaching, and to a perceived inability of students and investors to comprehend HE language departments without packaging them into an amorphous lump.

After months of silence, the official Modern Languages Review Committee consultation began in early February. Basing it on new and entirely different documents from the original pre-consultation, and well aware of the presence of a lot of angry students, the Committee has launched a rapid-fire sequence of (largely closed) meetings, releasing relevant documentation at short notice and under password protection. The apparent aim now is a restructuring and rebranding of MFL at UCL in line with elements of the Vice-Provost’s report. It seeks to homogenise Modern Languages into a single ‘Division', one that is lean on administration and heavy on so-called ‘interdisciplinary’ courses. It will be smaller, offer less, and cost as little as possible. It will be composed of 50% postgraduates, paying top-dollar and presumably each adopting the ‘orphan centuries’ bawled about by Worton in his the HEFCE report. It will also be centralised – no specific language will be granted its own curriculum agenda, and unique departmental support offered for students on years abroad will be the responsibility of decreased administration numbers and ever-busier academics, who will themselves be appointed from an unspecified point higher up the stack.

Phase one of the consultation is on its way to completion, and the facts are beginning to trickle out. Crucially we hear that, in the name of ‘avoiding duplication’, each former department is to be maintained by one 'departmental secretary' of a lower grade. They will in turn be supported by 6 separate ‘general administrators’ in another building entirely, dealing with admissions, finance and years abroad. As we have yet to be told who these will be or where the current administrators will fit in, this will probably mean up to five redundancies.

Phase two still remains, largely, a mystery. We are told that it will involve the announcement of course cuts ('as soon as possible'), course mergers and changes in the academic structure. Big Stuff. But we’re still waiting on the documents and will be seeing through a glass darkly until then.

Delays from Dean Woudhuysen in releasing consultation details and the exclusion of all but student representatives from these meetings have caused a whirlwind of anxiety among students and staff, all of whom are struggling to interpret the convoluted jargon and unreassuring platitudes of official documentation, knowing that somewhere in between the 'envelope pushing' and 'blue sky thinking' could be the end of their course or a redundancy notice. The speed at which the entire process is being executed means that the scope for consultation is likely to be extremely limited. However, if seized, it is a chance for students to have a powerful voice where they were denied one before.

In Universities across the country, departments are being cut and bullied, academics forced to reapply and students left out in the cold. If you share our opposition to redundancies and homogenising in the Modern Language departments then stick with us - we promise to be here with regular updates, news and analysis. Follow us on Twitter or join the Facebook group to find out how you can get involved.

* This is perhaps unsurprising, as the committee members’ backgrounds were, to put it as one student did at the time, ‘About as relevant to the field as the Académie Française is to Quantum Theory.’

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