Why learn what?

The university language-teaching community has devoted  much effort in the past 10 years to promoting language study to its potential students – and more importantly to anyone with an interest in our future capacity as a nation to deal competently with other cultures.  As part of this, I think we have spent too much time talking up the individual economic benefits.

It is time to take another tack.  If we start from the premise that is good for any society if its citizens have as rounded an education as possible, then we should perhaps reflect how knowledge of a foreign language fits in with what we expect from an educated person.

This isn’t a subject that has much traction these days, as the notion that people once learned foreign languages simply because it was expected, even normal to do so, now seems to belong to a world as remote from most people’s experience as public school Latin or the eleven-plus entrance exam to grammar school.

I came across the following definition of what a student _should_ learn by the American philosopher John Searle.*  It was written as part of a review of polemics bemoaning the state of American universities in 1990 and is worth requoting:

The student should have enough knowledge of his or her cultural tradition to know how it got to be the way it is. This involves both political and social history, on the one hand, as well as the mastery of some of the great philosophical and literary texts of the culture on the other. It involves reading not only texts that are of great value, like those of Plato, but many less valuable that have been influential, such as the works of Marx. […] However, you do not understand your own tradition if you do not see it in relation to others. Works from other cultural traditions need to be studied as well.

You need to know enough of the natural sciences so that you are not a stranger in the world.

You need to know at least one foreign language well enough so that you can read the best literature that that language has produced in the original, and so you carry on a reasonable conversation and have dreams in that language. There are several reasons why this is crucial, but the most important is perhaps this: you can never understand one language until you understand at least two.

You need to know enough philosophy so that the methods of logical analysis are available to you to be used as a tool. One of the most depressing things about educated people today is that so few of them, even among professional intellectuals, are able to follow the steps of a simple logical argument.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you need to acquire the skills of writing and speaking that make for candor, rigor, and clarity. You cannot think clearly if you cannot speak and write clearly.

As a linguist, I take heart in Searle’s assertion that learning another language is part of understanding your own.  And that the level to aspire to is one which enables you to do three things – to read the best literature in its original words, to hold a reasonable conversation, but also to dream…  Not just to ensure higher lifetime earnings then?


*John Searle, “The Storm Over the University” (New York Review of Books, December 6, 1990)


Deck chair reshuffling Or: Is Martin Hall the worst VC in UK HE?

titanic sinking

Let us just recap the events at Salford relating to the closure of modern languages.

In April 2013 a leaked internal memo outlined a damage limitation strategy to be pursued following a planned announcement that a number of subject areas were under threat and that recruitment to languages in particular was to stop.

In June 2013, an announcement was duly made in the peculiarly ponderous tone adopted by Salford’s leadership that, as the university would no longer recruit, after 2013, to modern languages, linguistics and areas of politics and contemporary history (except postgraduate security studies programmes), the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences would eventually be disestablished”.   Is it me, or is that parenthetically posed “after 2013” firm evidence of windbaggery, or not?

VC Martin Hall then appeared in THES with a hand-wringing mea culpa that was – of course – nothing of the sort.  He had just sacked his powerful deputy Adrian Graves for gross misconduct.  He had also lost a £150k court case claiming his reputation, his predecessor’s reputation and the said deputy’s reputation, and therefore that of the university, had been besmirched by a feeble internal satirical broadside and a web site read by almost no-one outside the university.  At that point,  Martin was at least embarrassed enough by petitions from the ITI, UCML and 2600 signatures from former students and others to institute a review.

That review (chaired by an external academic) evidently did not report what Martin and his management wanted, so a second review was instituted.

You can read the details of this on a special FAQ.  I won’t quote it in full but there are some points that will tell you all you need to know.  Here are numbers 1 and 2:

1. What did the World Languages Task Group review recommend?
The review endorsed the University’s original decision to withdraw single language undergraduate degree courses. It also recommended the retention of specialist language study within joint degrees (e.g. LLB Law and Spanish) and of a revised form of the postgraduate translation and interpreting degree.

In addition, the review proposed that all undergraduates should have the opportunity to study a foreign language module as part of their degree course to help them compete in the global marketplace.

2. Why was a second review undertaken?
To investigate in more detail specific proposals for joint foreign language degrees based on analysis of forecast student numbers and financial projections. The review’s conclusion was that, while there is a market in the UK higher education sector for joint degrees, such courses would not be viable for the University of Salford in the medium term.

In other words, the first external review reported that there was a future for language degrees at Salford – and that despite the enormous damage done by negative PR and disastrous HR interventions.  The second internal review said the opposite.  If you struggled to get that point, then I would argue this is deliberate and typical of the obfuscation and obscurity so beloved of Salford’s management.

The second review also sounds entirely reasonable until we read point 4:

4. Can I see the reports?
We do not plan to make the reports available. (i.e. No  – i.f.) The decision made is final.  Our focus is now on ensuring that our students successfully complete their studies, throughout the teach out

If the evidence is so compelling, why are those who will lose their jobs over it not allowed to read it?

I won’t rise to a Zola-esque j’accuse over this, but it seems to me Martin Hall is a leader who is a) more interested in his public image as a decent and reasonable man (see endless blog entries…) than anything else and b) has presided over a disastrous blood-letting of senior staff in a three year period, much of which he has kept at a convenient arm’s length.

He has also done me a service by proving my observation on 6 September last year correct.  He writes in a recent email to staff:

 As a University with a powerful global reach, we remain resolute in our commitment to the value of global citizenship and internationalisation outlined in our Strategic Plan. As a result, from September 2014, as part of our distinctive Passport to Global Citizenship strategy, all students will be able to study an optional Modern Foreign Languages module.


From vibrant and widely respected modern languages degrees to “optional Modern Foreign Languages module” in less than five years?  I would say that permits me to pose the question in my subtitle above.  Or not?


PS.  Baroness Coussins specifically mentions Salford in her speech in the House of Lords on 9 April:

In the case of Salford, the announcement is not only  a body blow for languages, for prospective students and for those who would have been teaching them; it is also disastrous for international bodies such as the EU and theUnited Nations, which have in the past seen Salford as one of their principal recruiting grounds for specialist linguists.

She goes on to say pretty much what I have said above:

As for universities, I hope that more of them will acknowledge that to survive in the 21st century means more than just using fine words in the mission statement about being an international institution and producing global graduates but that in practice this means fostering languages, not abandoning them.


She is of course far too polite to name names.

Salford Languages: A public letter to add to the pile

My last post mentioned public letters to Salford’s VC Martin Hall from the ITI and UCML.  I don’t doubt a number of other private letters and emails have been added over the past few days.

Public letters are an odd form of communication.  They are about being seen to “deplore” and “condemn” and asking someone to “reconsider”.  With this in mind, I thought I would try a different tack.

Here is my private-public letter to Martin Hall:

Derbyshire, 26 June 2013

Dear Martin,

I like to imagine you jogging in to the office through the streets of Salford in the mornings, training up for another charity run.  This is, at least what your blog suggests.  And it’s quite a blog – 300-600 words and more every week on subjects suitable for the thoroughly modern vice-chancellor.

As you cross Fire Station Square, past your predecessor’s crowning achievement – the working fountain! – I imagine your mind is full of things to do, people to meet.

And you will have been receiving a lot of letters recently, marked “very serious”, telling you that the closure disestablishment of Languages is a bad thing.  Indeed, a “tragedy”, which I understand is the official Salford word.  I expect those PR types have been very firm about which word we should use.

Anyway, I thought I would just let you know that it really isn’t too late to change your mind.  I know some Languages people have already left, but I understand that lots of “highly-qualified and experienced staff” are readily available to take up the slack.  All it takes is one little word from you.

What about it?

Yours sincerely,


OK.  I admit this came to me in the middle of the night and I couldn’t resist.  But anyone who is not Martin Hall reading this should consider joining the Facebook group set up by Kim at


or adding a signature to the petition at Change.org

Salford Languages: the curious incident of the dog in the night-time

The announcement that  Salford is to close Languages –  sorry,  “no longer recruit, after 2013, to modern languages, linguistics and areas of politics and contemporary history (except postgraduate security studies programmes)”  and “eventually be disestablished”, has provoked a number of public letters.

The University Council for Modern Languages (UCML) and the Institute of Translating and Interpreting (ITI) have written condemning the decision and asking for it to be reversed.

My former colleague Professor Myriam Salama-Carr has circulated a dignified and cogent appeal for Salford University to reconsider its decision and to ask all those with an interest to write to Salford’s VC Martin Hall.

The clarity and openness of these documents is striking.  They are saying simply – as  I put it in my last post – this is a bad decision being taken for bad reasons.

Now, imagine you are the parent of a 19 or 20 year-old Salford University student affected by the  proposed measures and read the glorious prose of this FAQ addressed to current Salford students.

Remember, not “closing” but being “disestablished”.

I quote number 9 –  “What will happen if my tutors leave before my programme finishes?”:

“As in any other profession, it is not unusual for staff to move employment for a variety of reasons. Should any of your tutors leave before your programme finishes, highly qualified and experienced staff would be brought in to fill any vacancies and the quality of your teaching and support would be unaffected.”

These weasel words reach a new low in mendacity.    This cannot be true.  Languages, Politics and History at Salford have already lost half of their permanent staff in less than 18 months.  The losses in knowledge and ability to “deliver” the curriculum are already measurable.

I contend that the rationalisation of course structures forced through at Salford in 2011 was mainly intended  to reduce course options and restrict the university’s liabilities in advance of the present aggressive down-sizing.

The “FAQ” is, of course, nothing of the sort.  It is a meretricious piece of PR gibberish, hacked together by people whose principal concern is “damage limitation”.  We know from the leaked memo just how senior staff at Salford University think.

As the crowning achievement of Salford University PR hackery, I give you point number 8:

“What will happen to my tutors?

Staffing levels will be reduced over the next three or four years, to reflect the requirements of the student body and the numbers enrolled on each programme. This will mean fewer staff in some areas, but also new opportunities in areas of growth.

Any affected tutors will be supported fully by our Human Resources Department with a range of development opportunities including support in gaining new MA qualifications. There will be no effect on the quality of your teaching or the resources available to you.”

… “our” Human Resources Department?   The same “shared service” outfit brought in to sit across the table at scripted redundancy meetings?  New MA qualifications?  (as opposed to existing MAs and PhDs presumably).  What subjects, pray tell, will *these* MAs be offered in… and who will be teaching them?    Were staff told of the “development opportunities” before they were written up as an “FAQ”?

Professor Martin Hall, the same Martin Hall who blew £150k of  public money pursuing a libel case he could not win, was this week lampooned by Laurie Taylor in the Times Higher.  Will Professor Hall be taking TSL Education to court for damaging his or the university’s reputation?


Thought not.

image from Sherlock Holmes, The Silver Blaze
Sherlock Holmes in The Silver Blaze

There is another person who has made no public statement.  In contrast to the leadership of Myriam Salama-Carr, we have the virtual silence of Professor Paul Rowlett,  Head of the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences and previously Head of the School of Languages.  As a  former member of UCML the nearest he has come to a public response is a single tweet:

Today’s @SundayTimesNews falsely reports that @SalfordUni is closing degrees in English.

Let us imagine that three of a row of  four houses are destroyed by fire, and the press writes this up initially as “Row of houses destroyed by fire”.   What would we think of the journalist who wrote the same story as “House survives fire”?

Paul Rowlett is a linguist of some distinction.

Martin Hall’s email address is:


Paul Rowlett can be found on Twitter as @RowlettPaul

You may like to write to them.  You probably won’t be able to persuade them to change their minds but you might register your disgust.

Ministry of Justice Outsourcing of Interpreting Services

The basic idea of outsourcing services is not in itself a bad thing.  But its success rests on the existence of a robust market of potential providers – if one provides a poor solution, it can be removed and replaced with another.

The provision of interpreters for the police and courts has in recent years depended on a National Register of Public Service Interpreters, which lists properly qualified interpreters with appropriate security clearance and training to interpret in court or for the police. Locally, police forces have used various agencies and individuals.  And interpreters so contracted have been paid at appropriate rates.

Last year, the Ministry of Justice has outsourced the provision of interpreters to a private company, Applied Language Solutions.  In order to make money and provide the MoJ with the savings promised, ALS has to pay interpreters less.  Quite understandably, interpreters are incensed at the pay cut and – in an unprecedented act of solidarity – interpreters in the North-West boycotted ALS.

In a twist that only the most cynical could have predicted ALS owner Gavin Wheeldon sold his company to the Conservative Party’s favourite outsourcing outfit, Capita for £67.5m.  The net result was three months of poor performance, with only 81% of interpreter contracts issued for courts being fulfilled.

The details of the story were covered extensively in Private Eye (though you can’t read them online) but there is plenty of material in the Law Gazette describing the situation.  A trawl through various interpreter and translator forums will tell you quickly that in some parts of the country police and courts have resorted to hiring interpreters directly.  More importantly ALS / Capita is now effectively permitted to monitor its own performance,  so suddenly it has gone from 81% to “nearly all” of its contracts being met.  It is worth listening to Yvonne Fowler’s speech in Birmingham on 19 May to get a flavour of the ramifications of the present situation.