What is marking for?

Or more precisely – why do we mark students’ language work?  Why do we spend so much time on a task that is often mechanical?   That a spell-checker function used at the right moment might do as well?

All language teachers spend time annotating language learners’ written output.  Many of us devise elaborate sets of initials and codes to tell our charges precisely what is amiss with their efforts.  In a sense, this is something we all accept. We believe implicitly that marking like this will help our students improve.

Arriving at university from school, students too expect that their work will be marked. For the last two years at Bristol I have asked a random, anonymised sample of our 250+ modern languages freshers a series of questions to invite them to think about how they learn.

One question I ask is “Do you like a teacher to write a correction of every mistake in your writing?”

This is what their responses look like:

answers to question

Detailed correction is what they want.   So to a large extent, that is what they get.  And in an age where the student has been invited to think of her/himself as a consumer, giving students what they want seems a sensible strategy.

Or maybe not?

There is a school of thought – going back to Steven Krashen’s Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition (1981) – that all this explicit instruction does little good.  True, marking student scripts is not quite what Krashen had in mind when he distinguished between “acquisition” and “learning”, but there have been arguments back and forth on this and similar points for more than 30 years — including absurd angels-on-pin-head notions of a difference between a “mistake” and an “error”, that we can somehow always separate errors that come about through lack of knowledge from “natural” mistakes.

So if the pedagogical function of marking (in my understanding of the term here as “annotating student’s written work”) is disputed, then what is marking for?

  • Just to reassure the language teacher that she is doing a good job?  I’ve known plenty of colleagues mark in such exhaustive detail that I feared for their sleep or their sanity — or both…
  • Or is it to reassure the student that she/he is learning something? When repeated mistakes might indicate otherwise…?
  • To reassure the student that the teacher “knows” what is right and what is not?  And that transmitting this confidence is “learning”?

I don’t have an answer to these questions.  But I know that in practice I mark at a sustainable level of detail and that I am frustrated enough by the lack of improvement that follows from such efforts that I will ring the changes, vary the forms of feedback, use rubrics, audio-visual recordings — anything to shift the fixed dynamics of what inevitably follows from my labours.



Salford Languages: What Martin Doesn’t Mention OR The Company You Keep

In his latest blog post Salford VC Martin Hall has exceeded his already prodigious weekly word count (just where does he find the time?) by detailing the reasons why languages are to be “phased out”. This has now replaced “disestablished” in his managerial vocabulary. Progress of a sort, I suppose.

But there is something rather suspicious about Martin’s account and the timeline he draws.

His post focusses on the economic unviability of languages degrees in the new financial climate. From this account it looks as if Salford has been the victim of unfortunate circumstances that it has only just learned about. “Not our fault, gov, national policy don’t you know?” is his defence.

However, the concentration on present and projected undergraduate numbers means Martin neglects to mention a number of things that the reader should know.

Firstly, Salford had until very recently thriving MA courses in Translation and Interpreting and Teaching of English as a Foreign Language that attracted over 100 students a year, more than a third of them from overseas. It also had more than half of the total PhD students in the entire School of HuLSS. And many of these were paying overseas fees.

Secondly, the downsizing strategy pursued under Huw Morris and Adrian Graves began a long time back and has caused irreparable damage to the university’s image.  I have remarked on this before, but here are a couple of quotes from potential applicants discussing whether to accept a place at Salford on The Student Room during this summer:

I don’t want to be at a Uni that’s running down its courses and which will probably be in more trouble soon.

I’m not going to be on board the Titanic when it sinks.

Is it just me that’s worried about Salford University’s worsening financial situation, they’re planning like the 12th round of staff cuts in over one and a half years and are planning on discontinuing some courses in several departments.

So we arrive at September 2013 and, after three years of negative publicity and public climb-downs in a desperate attempt to save face: surprise, surprise, not many students are attracted to the courses still running. I’ll leave you to decide whether this is just down to being in the “squeezed middle” or has more to do with the lack of support and at times outright wilful under-investment from senior management over a longer time.

Martin,  after all, has to find a way to fund the crushing rents due to Peel Holdings at Media City and to meet the university’s loan repayments for more new buildings.

Another striking aspect of the prolific Vice-Chancellor’s blog post is his choice of comparators. He mentions Bradford as another university that closed its languages provision. This is interesting, and at least relevant, in that Bradford and Salford have similar origins and had applied languages courses that were comparable. But he neglects to mention that Bradford’s demise lies more than half a decade back and had more to do with management decisions and the fallout from the Bradford riots in 2001.

He explicitly does NOT mention Aston, Heriot-Watt or Bath.  All three are universities of the same plate-glass generation as Salford.  All three still have well-regarded language programmes of a similar flavour.

What he does cite is the University Alliance Group’s policy proposal for Targeted Support for Modern Foreign Languages* .  Barely any of the Alliance Group members mentioned (with the exception of Bradford) had a substantial degree-level language programme before 1992.  Only a few of them built up departments to rival Salford in scale and scope over the boom years of the late 1990s. None of them had substantial research interests or postgraduate students in Translation and Interpreting Studies. Most of the programmes cited on page 16 of the document are degrees in which language is very clearly a minor component. At least one Alliance Group member had already abolished its language degrees some time back (UWE).

I would put it this way.  Salford University, as a result of poor decisions, extravagant spending on glory projects and lack of a coherent strategy, has fallen ever lower on the various league tables to the point where its overall profile is closer to that of the post-1992 universities than of Aston, Bath or Warwick.

Hence the decision to join the Alliance Group.  The Alliance Group is not interested in offering degrees in modern languages. Most of its members would like the window-dressing of a university-wide language programme to avoid the accusation that their international strategy is just about maximising overseas student numbers.  But the kind of language degree programmes that Salford runs do not fit this picture.  This explains Martin’s hand-wringing.  He’d really like to be thought of as a nicer, more liberal leader than he needs to be.

As a former staff member, who had to listen to the absurd mantra about Salford aiming to be “top quartile” by 2017 as a justification for wholesale butchery of established courses, it sticks in my throat.


* In a way the use of the secondary school acronym MFL (Modern Foreign Languages) tells us the authors of this document lacked the courage of their convictions.

Salford Languages: what does this tell us about UK university groups?

Manchester University is seeking to recruit additional expertise in French and German Translating and Interpreting, just as a few miles away Salford closes disestablishes Languages.

A number of people have noted that expertise in modern languages and European cultures is increasingly concentrated in Russell Group institutions.

But the Russell Group are not the only universities to prioritise language study as a key part of the curriculum.

As John Holford of Nottingham points out on Twitter @john_holford, the message regarding language study at the 1994 group is rather different:

Nuanced for Salford’s sensibilities? “@1994group non-European languages @SOAS help boost http://bit.ly/15lthGX @soascareers

So by closing disestablishing Salford Languages are we saying an entire class of universities will not have any of the benefits the Russell Group and 1994 institutions so clearly see?

If the answer is yes, then the Alliance Group of Universities (to which Salford belongs) will effectively  reinforce the worst outcomes of  language policies in state schools over the past decade.  They will proudly produce monolingual graduates for a workplace that is increasingly multilingual, multicultural and transnational.  What possible defence is there for this?  A “Tragedy”?  A farce more like.

Albert Mansbridge, the founder of the Workers’ Educational Association, ended his account of the aspirations and ideals of that movement in 1906 with a quotation from Matthew Arnold:
Culture requires us to know ourselves and the world, and, as a means to this end, we must have the best that has been thought and said in the world and the harmonious expansion of all the powers which make the beauty and worth of human nature is incumbent upon every man.
How far we have fallen.

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.

Salford Languages: It doesn’t have to end this way

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.


A Silent Spring for Languages

In the year I was born Rachel Carson published one of the founding texts of the modern ecological movement, “Silent Spring”, the title apparently from Keats: “The sedge is wither’d. And no birds sing”. Carson’s – still controversial – thesis was that overuse of pesticides was damaging animal life to the point that there would be no birdsong to mark the end of winter.

If the comparison is not too far-fetched I think we are reaching a point in the ecology of British Higher Education where the disappearance of languages from the curriculum is barely remarked. The canaries – to mix metaphors – are already dead and gone.

There are now a significant number of UK universities that no longer offer students the opportunity to study foreign languages to a high level.  In some cases even lower-level provision is rudimentary and dependent on hourly-paid tutors, who, whatever their competence or skills, are marginal to the policies and practices of their employers.  Gone are the days of  the post-92 languages expansion, when every newly-minted former polytechnic regarded it as a matter of educational and political pride to incorporate its language provision into full degrees offers.

The pioneers of the applied languages model, housed largely in the glass plate universities of the 1960s,  are depleted and damaged, often by the wilful decisions of Britain’s self-serving university Politburos – Bradford  – closed;  my own former congenial home Salford – downsized and threatened with closure.  There have been other casualties – Queen’s Belfast – a Russell Group member for whom Italian and then German were subjects unworthy of support.  Keele, once home to a thriving department noted for its cultural and political research,  now proud possessor of a  language-teaching unit.  Very occasionally there have been vocal fightbacks and limited successes – Swansea to mention one, which defended itself with an admirable campaign against a madcap plan.

But this late spring is a silent one for languages and I wonder  if there are enough of us left out there to raise a dawn chorus?