There is a lot I could write about the announcement that Salford University is to close its modern languages provision. And I will doubtless write more.
For now, however, it seems more important to respond to the most signally dishonest part of the official spokesman’s statement:
“These changes are as a result [sic] of changing demand within higher education and from employers.”
No, these changes are not a result of anything other than the wilful policies of Salford’s senior management.
Over the past five years Salford University has been radically reshaped.
A little history here: Salford is not a former polytechnic. It belonged to the group of Colleges of Advanced Technology that became universities in the 1960s. Many of the former CATs have prospered – Bath and Warwick to name but two. As such, the University of Salford I joined in 1991 was small (around 5000 students) and had a keen sense of its distinctiveness. In Languages, we offered degree courses focussed on active foreign language competence and were proud to be thought of as the alternative to “mainstream” literary and culture-oriented language degrees. We produced an unusually high proportion of professional translators. Numbers were modest – around 100 students a year.
As the last of the “old” universities Salford has a Royal Charter. This was important in stabilising the university through its early years and particularly during the crisis of 1981, when then VC John Ashworth rescued it following a 44% cut in central government funding . Having a Royal Charter means putting up with the careful, if somewhat cumbersome structures associated with a historic foundation. Senior officers cannot simply force policies through without consent.
However, in 2007-8, then VC Michael Harloe’s newly-appointed Deputy VC / Registrar Adrian Graves set about dismantling the checks and balances of a chartered university (the Senate as representative of the academic body, the role of the University Court). All these things, pace Graves, were no longer the hallmark of “good corporate governance”. No, the way forward was a lean and agile management team. Very few people spoke against the motion, which received endorsement from the Privy Council in 2008. I think few understood the dangers and the concentration of power that would result.
Around the same time came Media City – with the granting of planning permission by Salford City Council in 2006. This was Harloe’s and Graves’s great gamble, as they put it “an opportunity too big to miss”. In the years of the Brown government, just as property values were about to slump and the banks collapse, the University of Salford proposed to invest in a “presence” at the new Media City complex. Freedom of Information requests by the Salford Star have established that this will cost £2.25 million per year until 2020.
This is a vanity project of extraordinary stupidity. At a time when “big media” is constantly threatened by the digital revolution, a university with a sound reputation for media production courses on a modest scale has indulged in a piece of magical thinking – “if only our students are on the same site, the wonders of the BBC and the media will rub off on them and make us even more famous”.
At the same time, management within Salford became ever more controlling and focussed on what it considered to be “key performance indicators”. I described this approach in an open email to the Head of School at the time as having more in common with tractor factory statistics under Stalin than with the aims and role of a university. I stand by my view.
And when I finally took up a management role at Salford in 2011 the statistics seemed elastic, but only ever stretched to do one thing: to undermine any kind of financial case for the continued presence of Languages (and History and Politics or English, for that matter). The level of control exerted was extreme – even employing a single hourly-paid tutor required a signature from the Dean.
Human Resources became a helpline staffed by increasingly anonymous advisers whose principal function was to sit in on meetings where a redundancy script was read to the hapless targets of cost-cutting – those who were actually doing the work of the university (teaching students). The university no longer referred to itself as such in internal documents. No, now it was “the organisation”. In the meantime, names changed and new titles appeared – from School of Languages to Directorate of Languages within a School of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences. The Faculty became a “College” (no, I’m not joking). New roles appeared – Change Managers, Director of University Advancement, an entire department called – again, with no hint of irony – “Student Life”. [All this presents an example of what Burkhard Sievers has christened the psychotic university.] Pretty much anyone who dared to disagree with Graves publicly seemed to disappear to pastures new, or “left the organisation to take up an excellent opportunity elsewhere”.
Worst of all, huge pressure was applied to make degree programmes conform to a standardised model. Staff were told – and I now believe this to have been disingenuous at best and dishonest at worst – that these revised programmes would be “sustainable” and conform to “best practice” and improve the student experience.
With breath-taking arrogance, the changes were applied in the middle of the autumn semester for the following year, consuming time and energy that could have been much better directed elsewhere. The net effect was that in the academic year 2011-2012 Salford was advertising in its prospectus and on its website courses it would not be offering at the start of the coming session in 2012. This was even before the decision was taken to axe Italian. The consequences for recruitment, even without the advent of the new fee system, were entirely foreseeable.
The School was informed that students holding offers would swap courses and accept the changes. The Salford “brand”, with its ugly and expensive new logo, was bigger than the choice of course, apparently. For a department like Languages, which had survived for over thirty years largely by persuading students to choose its courses against the grain and despite the generally (undeserved) dire reputation of the city itself, this represented ignorant high-handedness of the worst sort.
Similarly, changes were applied to current courses as a cost-cutting measure. Anyone who has followed the reports over the past months will have noticed that the leaked memo could be interpreted to mean that this year Salford University again intends to recruit students to courses it is discontinuing.
There are only two possible interpretations for this behaviour. One is that the managers who imposed these measures were incompetent. The other is that they cynically undermined any chance that the Languages programmes might have of recruiting students because they already intended to close Languages as far back as 2011. With the sudden departure of Adrian Graves in disgrace – when was the last time you heard of a senior university manager being dismissed for gross misconduct? – and the disappearance of the Dean responsible for the downsizing and planned closure to Wales, what remains is an unholy mess – but perhaps also a small hope of rescue.
At last count, around half the roughly 30 active teaching staff in Salford Languages who started the academic year 2011-12 are no longer there. None of the leavers have been replaced. The teaching is clearly being shored up by part-time staff on short-term contracts.
The truth is that the fabric woven over 40 years by generations of linguists is being torn up in the interests of a vainglorious project to transform a university that has served its home city well into a fawning adjunct of the media industry.
It didn’t have to come to this. It doesn’t have to end like this. Those who are responsible know who you are. You have a chance to make amends.