Letter from a Basque studies student

I am writing to express significant concerns regarding the proposed restructuring of the Modern Languages Department, which are shared by all those who have co-signed this email.

First of all, as someone who is currently studying Basque I am extremely disappointed to hear that if the proposal goes through, both Basque and Galician programs will be cut. Primarily, I would like to inquire as to why this decision has been made. I cannot imagine that it is for financial reasons, since the Basque teacher’s salary is not paid by the university. As such, offering Basque comes at no significant expense or inconvenience to the university, and at great benefit to the department and its students. Furthermore, management has apparently failed to consider the huge draw that offering all the main languages spoken in the Iberian peninsula holds for students. If these languages are no longer offered, there is very little setting Birmingham apart from any other University from the point of view of prospective Spanish students. Personally, if Birmingham hadn’t offered Basque, Catalan, Portuguese and Galician at the time I was a prospective student, it is highly likely that I would currently be studying at the University of Edinburgh. Multiple classmates have also cited the possibility of taking Galician and Basque as a major factor influencing them to put Birmingham as their first choice University.

Current 2nd and 3rd Years wishing to continue studying Basque or Galician will have chosen their year abroad destinations based on the fact that going to a region where these languages are spoken is a requirement for taking the language in final year. If Basque and Galician studies are to be cut, this preparation on behalf of the students is futile. Furthermore, had these students know that final year Basque and Galician study would not be a possibility, they may well have made different year abroad decisions.

The entire premise of the proposed restructuring seems completely illogical. The University claim that the restructuring will increase student satisfaction and ‘revitalise’ the curriculum, whilst proposing changes which will undoubtedly have the opposite effect. From the students’ perspective it is clear that individual language faculties are currently operating at a bare minimum number of overworked teaching staff. With restructuring, not only will we be losing staff members overall, but there will also be a higher proportion of researchers. Whilst research-oriented staff are clearly a valuable aspect of the department, they are also ill-suited to language teaching. Research-oriented staff have little reason to be interested in or dedicated to language teaching, which for them is inevitably a secondary focus. It seems that University management fail to grasp the incredible importance of specialist teaching staff. At the end of the day, it is talented and dedicated teaching staff who have the biggest positive impact on students and their degrees. It is also clear when talking to fellow students that few of us considered research capacity of the department to be of particular importance as prospective students.

Information about the proposal states that it has been draw up in response to student feedback. It would be helpful to know the exact nature of this student feedback and how it was received, in order to see how it correlates to the proposed changes. I find it hard to believe that any student feedback would call for teaching staff redundancies. I can only imagine the response to student feedback refers exclusively to the proposed introduction of new facilities such as an Interpretation Suite. However, new facilities are of next to no value to students without enough teaching staff to enable best use of them.

Aside from the proposal itself, I also take issue with the communication regarding it. The meeting held supposedly allowing students to raise questions and concerns was arranged during lecture times, with less than 24 hours notice and via an exceedingly vague and poorly-structured email. This is unacceptable and completely belies claims that the University values student opinions. Thankfully, since this email was first written, another meeting has been arranged which I hope will allow students to have their concerns taken into account.

Moving beyond the interests of students, I have great concern regarding the treatment of staff during this process. Similarly to the student meeting, staff were given only two days notice of the meeting during which the restructuring was announced. This forced staff to make the choice between cancelling or rescheduling classes at short notice, and missing out on important information about their jobs. Staff will be required to reapply for a reduced total number of positions in the department. Through pitting staff against each-other in this manner, the University has created an extremely stressful and hostile work environment which will undoubtedly have a significant negative impact on staff members, who already deal with large amounts of pressure in their day-to-day jobs. In addition, by the time teaching staff find out whether or not they will be made redundant, it will be too late for them to apply for positions elsewhere for the upcoming academic year. This appalling treatment of staff shows a base disregard on the part of the University for the welfare of its employees.

I sincerely hope that the feedback and concerns of both students and staff will be taken into account over the coming weeks. I would greatly appreciate responses to the issues I have raised here.

Signed by over 175 students, and sent to University of Birmingham management on February 16th 2016.

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