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Linguistics axed

Students and staff turned out in force to protest the decision to cut linguistics (Photo: The Argus)

Students and staff turned out in force to protest the decision to cut linguistics (Photo: The Argus)

One of the highest-ranking degree programmes at Sussex will close to new applicants at the end of the current academic year.

The University announced last week, without any prior consultation with staff or students, that there will be no new students accepted onto Linguistics courses from October 2009. Students currently enrolled on Linguistics degree programmes will be able to finish their degrees and teaching will continue for two years. As of the 2011-2012 academic year, English Language, MA courses in English Language and Applied Linguistics and research programmes will continue to operate but from within the English department. Staff were informed of the decision at a meeting with the Dean of Humanities on Wednesday 18 March; however no member of senior management was present at the meeting to discuss the decision. The word spread to the USSU sabbatical officers and students the following day.

The University of Sussex’s Linguistics programme was rated as the second best in the country by The Independent last year, coming second only to Cambridge. It also has the best graduate career prospects of any linguistics department in the UK – with 75% of graduates undertaking further study or in graduate employment six months after graduation. Linguistics and English Language students are among the highest calibre students at Sussex, entering with some of the highest admissions tariffs. The entry requirements were even raised recently due to the sheer number of high performing applicants. Despite its impressive reputation, the University has decided to withdraw all Linguistics programmes, leaving staff facing redundancies and prospective students turned away.

The news was announced just days before an admissions event and one day before the end of term. Students currently applying and those already offered places on 2009 degree programs are being contacted individually and offered alternative course choices. However, for those who had already arranged travel and accommodation for the Admissions Day, this information came a little too late.

The University has said that the withdrawal is “part of a refocusing of activity, in line with longer-term strategy to make a sustainable future for English language teaching and research within the current Department, and future School, of English. Having reviewed its programmes and research activity, the English department is looking to develop research and teaching across literature, drama and English language.”

The number of teaching posts will be halved over the next two years and from the academic year 2011-2012 there will be only 3.5 positions available, although it is unclear at this stage whether these will be teaching only posts or will include a research aspect. No jobs are secure and staff will have to reapply for these jobs meaning that current positions are secure for a maximum of two years. Changes will come into place from as soon as the next academic year however, with staff on teaching only contracts having their hours increased by 25% while their rates of pay remain unchanged.

Lynne Murphy, Convenor of undergraduate programmes in Linguistics and English Language, said that, “The decision has not been approved through the University regulations for withdrawal of programmes, yet it is being treated as if the job is done. Such non-consultative management can’t be good for the University’s reputation, and it’s definitely not good for staff morale.”

Just two years ago, the Linguistics and English Language department was merged with the department of English, losing three staff members in the process and sparking worries about the future of the course. Students and staff were reassured at the time that the courses would continue and the merger was to ‘ensure the sustainability of the delivery of the subject area.’ Since the merger, funding and support for Linguistics has been cut and of the original positions that were lost, only one has been refilled.

Dan Higgins, USSU Communications Officer, explained how the merger had “set linguistics up to fail” and asked “why would linguistics be successful when it was too small and not supported enough by the University to survive?”

The recent announcement shows that these fears were not unfounded and students and staff are now battling to save the department. Last Friday, a demonstration attracted hundreds of students and staff to Library Square to rally against the decision and to mobilise a campaign against the University. Despite being held on the last day of term, when many students are already leaving to return home for the holidays, the turnout was impressive. Jim Guild, Secretary of the Sussex branch of the University and College Union (UCU) commended the high turnout saying that it shows how “this sort of decision making is not going to be allowed to stand at this University.” A Facebook support group entitled “Save Linguistics @ Sussex” has also amassed well over 1000 members since its creation last Thursday.

In addition to this, the campaign has already been backed by Noam Chomsky who has spoke out against the decision by Sussex University management to cut linguistics courses.

Chomsky, who has over thirty honorary degrees from Universities around the world and is seen by many the father of modern linguistics, said “I am very sorry, naturally, to learn of the decision to cut linguistics courses.  The field is at an exciting stage.  The same is true generally of the cognitive sciences, within which linguistics has a central place.  If the decision is implemented, it will, I think, be a serious blow to the intellectual life of the university.”

First year Linguistics and English Language Student Rep, Caz Adlington has said that “the students are truly outraged, and we plan to fight this decision all the way. We would like to once again pledge our support for our amazing team of tutors, and thank everybody else for their enthusiasm so far.” Third year rep, Sam Crago added that the decision is “disgusting, not only due to the complete lack of academic basis for the closure, but in the underhand, cowardly and downright undemocratic means by which the senior management have gone about it.”

During the rally, Lynne Murphy outlined the interdisciplinary nature of Linguistics courses. The loss of staff will ultimately prevent students from a number of departments including Cognitive Science, Education, and Languages, from taking courses in Linguistics and English Language and therefore having huge repercussions on interdisciplinarity at Sussex.

Steve Burman, Dean of Humanities states in his letter to current students that the changes “fit well with the future research mission of the new School of English.” However, as Lynne Murphy explains, “Developing the research strategy for the new School of English is supposed to be a consultative process that will begin after the new Head of School is in post. It is very concerning that decisions are being made on the basis of a strategy that does not yet exist, and that the decisions seem to contradict the University’s stated aim to support research within six interdisciplinary themes.”

There are also worries concerning students taking four-year courses such as those who study Linguistics with Modern Languages. The University has a commitment to provide a complete degree for students enrolled on these programmes, however there is no firm plan yet as to what these students will be provided with in their fourth and final year. It is clear that whatever is offered will no longer be under the Linguistics banner and that there will be significantly fewer staff to offer it.

The cut to Linguistics is reminiscent of the attempt to cut the internationally renowned department of Chemistry back in 2006. The VC at the time, Alasdair Smith, proposed merging Chemistry with Biology, which would have led to many redundancies. However, widespread student and staff protest led to the decision being revoked. Members of the Chemistry department have already been in contact with Linguistics staff to express their sympathy and support. Chemistry, however, had the advantage of being a fully-fledged department at the time of the proposed closure, whereas Linguistics is no longer a department in its own right.

The announcement comes as Times Higher Education reports on the inflated wage packets of Vice-Chancellors across the country. Our own VC, Michael Farthing’s salary has increased by 42.6% on last year with his current salary standing at over £222,000.

Laura Tazzioli, USSU president, called the decision a “betrayal” to staff and students and added that the USSU will be behind staff and students all the way.

In response, the University has said that, “The withdrawal of programmes, as part of the management of the curriculum, is not unusual and does not normally require widespread consultation with students and staff.” Steve Burman, Dean of Humanities, aims to reassure students, stating that, “We remain committed to providing the highest quality of provision in our teaching of this subject over the next few years and will ensure that there is proper staffing to allow this.”

Paul Cecil, President of the UCU at Sussex comments: “We believe the decision to notify prospective students that they will not be admitted next year, and to tell current students that their degree area is being withdrawn, ‘before’ any formal decision has been made (or even discussed) by any university committee is wholly unacceptable. This pre-emptive action by management displays an utter disregard for the proper
governance of the University.”

“We are providing on-going support to staff in relation to the degree programme itself, and the very significant contractual and employment threats they are now under.”

There will be a meeting for staff and students in the first week of summer term before the decision goes through the official review procedure by the Teaching and Learning Committee and University Senate.

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