THE MODERN LANGUAGES RESTRUCTURING: WHY SHOULD WE CARE AND WHAT CAN WE DO?
The department of modern languages is undergoing changes to ‘revitalise its curriculum and enhance its research capacity’, according to a long and vague email circulated to students on 2nd Feb. But what does this mean, and why do our lecturers need our help?
➔ Among other changes, the University is proposing to make 12 teaching staff redundant, to hire 10 new ‘research active staff’, by autumn 2017
➔ A final decision on this proposal will be taken in June, and the consultation period ends 27th April 2016
The full proposal can be found on the University of Birmingham website.
DO WE NEED A HIGHER PROPORTION OF RESEARCH STAFF?
The University is calling for ‘greater leadership in research’, to bump the department up the research leadership tables. However, in the latest Research Assessment Exercise of 2014, 16% of the department’s research was classified as ‘world leading’ and 59% as ‘internationally excellent’. Even if this were not the case, research staff alone cannot be expected to provide the entirety of a language degree. Research staff are valued members of the department, but only when paired with specialist language teachers. Under the proposed restructuring, research staff would be expected to pick up the slack in language teaching as a secondary task, something that they are neither trained nor inclined to do. Whilst being in a research-active environment is important and stimulating for students, we chose this University for its language teaching. Students taking ab-initio language courses at the University of Birmingham reach fluency in only 4 years, thanks to exemplary language teachers. These same language teachers, many of whom have served this University for decades, are being treated as disposable, second-rate staff by the University, who then have the audacity to claim that these changes are in response to student concerns.
REPLACING STAFF MEMBERS WITH FACILITIES
The proposal promises new facilities, such as an interpretation suite, to be offered to students as part of ‘improving’ the department. This is allegedly in response to student feedback, but interpretation and translation require specialist language staff. To claim to be responding to students’ interest in language study whilst undermining this by removing relevant staff members demonstrates the University’s hypocrisy. They are not responding to genuine concerns, but ticking as many boxes as possible by replacing staff members with shiny new facilities.
In most departments, pure language modules are taught by native speakers, the vast majority of whom are specialist teaching staff. The proposal itself references student interest in increasing the level of teaching offered in the target language; something that is much more effective when lead by a native speaker of the language. This is another reason that these, often Anglophone, researchers can’t just be expected to pick up the slack. Here the University shows itself once again to be lying when it claims to be responding to student concerns.
PITTING STUDENTS AGAINST STAFF
The University is yet to provide any evidence claiming that students have requested more ‘research-active’ staff. Instead, they are using the age-old practice of manipulating any negative feedback given by students to its own ends. The main source of student feedback is the NSS (National Student Survey), which has been widely condemned by academics for many years, for being based on open-ended, vague questions that can be manipulated to justify any decision they University chooses(3). If students criticise a module, it doesn’t matter what their contention is, as this criticism will be wielded by the University to bully staff to whatever ends they wish.
BULLYING, INTIMIDATION AND UNDERHAND TACTICS
It is in students’ interests to have happy, dedicated staff. The threats of redundancies hanging over staff has not only been brutal for staff but has had a great impact on studies. This isn’t an isolated attack on the modern languages department, but an episode in a series of harsh restructuring procedures that have been sweeping the University for years. Staff have been living in fear of these changes, threatened by its certainty but unaware of the details, leading them to either question their job security or know that theirs comes at the cost of their colleagues’.
See the except from Private Eye, February 2015, demonstrating how the University bullies staff into silence.
IS THIS A CONSULTATION?
Students were notified about the initial consultation meeting a mere 24 hours in advance. The meeting was conducted on a Friday afternoon, and the invite sent out the night before in a long, vague and poorly constructed email, with many students not even realising that it mentioned a meeting at all. The University claims that this is a genuine consultation, that students are a part of, but this appears to only be a tokenistic way of getting us to inadvertently rubberstamp this proposal as it is pushed through behind their backs. Unsurprisingly, the email itself didn’t mention any redundancies at all, and only referred to ‘improvements’ and new facilities. These underhand tactics are nothing new. To name just one example, in 2013-14 the Institute of Antiquity and Archaeology was faced devastating compulsory redundancies and the complete closure of some departments. The University also claimed to be consulting with students, but this took place over the summer – conveniently, when almost all students were unable to attend (more information about this campaign here). We are again seeing the University slipping a devastating proposal past students at a time of year when many of us are treading water with our own deadlines and exams, compounded by their deliberate attempts to hold meetings that we are unaware of.
WHAT CAN WE DO? USING THEIR OWN CHANNELS
These changes are being pushed through in the name of student satisfaction, reliant on our ignorance of how they are using our ‘interests’. Attending their consultations en masse to call out their hypocrisies and empowering student reps to speak up can make it harder for them to claim our approval. The next consultation meeting, held by the University, is Wednesday 16th March, 4- 5pm, Strathcona LT4. The proposal invites ‘questions or queries’ to be sent to email@example.com, and bombarding this with complaints is a low-effort way to make some impression. These emails can also be sent to the Vice Chancellor: firstname.lastname@example.org, and University staff orchestrating the restructuring: Anthony Arnull, A.M.Arnull@bham.ac.uk, Michael Whitby, M.Whitby@bham.ac.uk, and Matthew Rampley M.J.Rampley@bham.ac.uk Modern Languages students have already collected over 1000 signatures in opposition to the proposed cuts, with others on the way. Making this known will make it ever harder for the University to claim to be acting in students’ interests.
BAD PRESS & REPUTATIONAL DAMAGE
As University education becomes more expensive, we have immense power over the University as they would be terrified of losing potential customers. Negative publicity, such as articles, stunts and social media posts carry a lot of weight. This requires organisation, but has proven effective in the past. In 2013, 361 members of the university’s support staff had been at risk of redundancy and cuts to hours, pay and conditions. Students supported their University community by planning to mobilise a national demonstration and ‘days of action’ at open days, if workers’ conditions were not protected. Huge concessions were made and the campaign declared a success, demonstrating the power we have if we organise together.