The National:

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This week we're looking at the work trade unions are doing to stop proposed cuts to the Modern Languages department at Aberdeen University. 

AT the centre of the row over proposed cuts to the Modern Languages department at Aberdeen University, is the Aberdeen branch of the University and College Union (UCU). 

Alongside the university’s students’ association and its student newspaper, The Gaudie, trade union members have been at the forefront of protesting against potential cuts and highlighting the stories of staff and students at risk. 

Senior management at Aberdeen University announced a consultation in November to explore three options for the future of provision at the School of Language, Literature, Music and Visual Culture (LLMVC). 

These include: 

  • Scrapping single honours degrees in French, Gaelic, German and Spanish and reducing the number of courses required to deliver joint honours programmes 
  • Scrapping single and joint honours degrees in French, Gaelic, German and Spanish but continuing “with language” programmes such as International Business with French 
  • Scrapping all language programmes with a named language but offering a language as an elective course in first or second year 

More than 13,000 people have signed a petition calling on the university’s senior management to rethink their plans to axe the Modern Languages department, which includes the provision of Gaelic. 

The university’s senate – the body in charge of academic matters in the university – called for the consultation to be halted until they had the opportunity to consider the academic impact of the proposed cuts. 

And on Tuesday afternoon, the university court met to discuss the consultation, with The Gaudie reporting that senior management was expected to ask for full delegated powers to decide the fate of the department. 

The court accepted a recommendation that will see the university continue to offer joint honours languages degrees.

However, it remains unclear whether single degree programmes will also continue, as the court have extended the consultation period by a month.

'An act of academic vandalism'

On Monday evening a rally organised by Aberdeen UCU and the students’ association showed support for modern languages at the university. 

The National: The university has opened a consultation into the future of the modern languages department

The union announced the results of their consultative ballot, with 81% of members saying they would support strike action, and 87% in support of action short of a strike, in response to the proposed cuts. 

This suggests, should a formal ballot be carried out, that it is likely the university will be impacted by industrial action in the new year if senior management does not back down on the cuts. 

The union branch was joined by UCU general secretary Jo Grady, who gave a virtual speech calling for senior management to reconsider the consultation, calling it “an act of academic vandalism”. 

Grady said: “Teaching and research in modern languages is an integral part of a university. These plans could leave Aberdeen as the only ancient university in the UK to not offer modern language degrees which says much about management at Aberdeen University, and their lack of ambition for the university and north-east Scotland. 

“We know from the many interventions from European consulates, politicians, professional bodies, staff and senators, and from students that modern languages at Aberdeen is valued and that the staff that deliver that work should be invested in rather than face losing their jobs.” 

Trade unionists have been outspoken in demonstrating the value that languages bring to students, the university and the wider community. 

David Clough, vice-chair of the Aberdeen UCU branch and chair in Theology and Applied Sciences at Aberdeen University, spoke to The National about the importance of solidarity in placing pressure on senior management. 

“Colleagues in Modern Languages, Aberdeen UCU, the university’s senate, student representatives, and staff across the university have come together to challenge the ill-judged policy,” Clough said. 

He added: “Aberdeen UCU is appalled at the plans of senior management to end over a century of modern languages as an academic subject at the university and threatens 29 colleagues in modern languages with redundancy. 

“The hasty management plans would rush through a consultation period of only 45 days, which gives no realistic prospect of appropriate consideration of alternative ways forward. 

“UCU members at Aberdeen stand in solidarity with our colleagues and will continue our campaign against the threat to Modern Languages for as long as necessary to see it off.” 

Languages learning across Scotland hangs in the balance 

The proposed cuts do not just threaten students and staff at the university – but the learning of languages across Scotland. 

Many of those against the cuts have pointed out that axing language degrees would lead to a deficit in language teachers, meaning that pupils across Scotland would be worse off. 

As the number of teachers in Scotland has declined for the second year in a row, unions have warned that the Scottish Government risks failing to meet its commitment of employing 3500 additional teachers during this parliamentary term. 

Education Institute Scotland (EIS) general secretary Andrea Bradley, said the decrease in numbers should be “a wake-up call” for the Scottish Government. 

The National:

Bradley said: “The Scottish Government already has a binding commitment to employ 3500 additional teachers in our schools during this parliament. Instead, we again see the number of teachers working in our schools falling. 

"This should be a further wake-up call to the Scottish Government and local authority employers that graduates are voting with their feet and choosing other careers where terms and conditions are better - pay is higher, workload is lower and working environments are safer."

At a time when education is facing staffing and funding issues, trade unions have made it clear that axing the Modern Languages department at Aberdeen University would only add to the problems faced in the sector.