From the linguistic turn, to the turn of linguistics – for closure

After the linguistic turn of previous decades, it seems as if English universities have unilaterally decided the discipline should be abandoned. And it is English universities that are acting to close courses because of the peculiarly destructuive nature of their version of the marketised funding model. Vice chancellors seem inclined to follow each other’s lead in withdrawing courses in the arts and humanities. Last year saw closures in history and archaeology. The previous year it was modern languages. Fifteen years ago it was chemistry. This year it’s the turn of English and linguistics. In all cases, there has been very little account taken of the quality of courses or the nature of outcomes for graduates. Even less thought has been given to the complex inter-dependencies of disciplines within and across universities. Arguments – if any are presented – tend to be made on the basis of falling applications, even when the subjects under review have been identified as strategic priorities by government, as in the case of chemistry and languages. Staff, naturally, feel traduced and gaslit when they have exceeded expectations in TEF and REF success, but management teams cut courses and implement redundancies anyway.

There have been several of these scenarios in recent weeks and reports of poor treatment of both staff and students at the universities of Wolverhampton, Huddersfield, Roehampton and Sheffield Hallam. I have written a number of letters to vice chancellors in defence of the implicated courses. These letters have been similar in theme, but tailored in each case to reflect the particular circumstances of the university. To date, I have received just one reply, from the Communications team at Roehampton referring to ‘careful consideration’ and a ‘challenging environment’ and assurances that ‘no decisions have been taken at this stage and we are committed to engaging in meaningful consultation with our academic colleagues’.

The obvious irony for me is that, in engaging with vice chancellors, I have chosen to rely, in part, on arguments from metrics. One reason is to point out the hypocrisy and arbitrariness involved in some of these decisions. There sometimes seems to be a kind of herd mentality whereby, if one university decides to withdraw a course, in short order, a number of ‘competitor institutions will follow suit. The implications for students are that some courses, often in the arts and humanities, cease to be available in certain geographical areas or in certain types of institution. Modern languages courses are now rare at post-92 universities. There is a well-founded fear that arts and humanities courses will soon be the provenance of just the Russell Group.

Below is my email to Professor Sir Chris Husbands, Vice Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University.

Dear Vice-Chancellor

I am writing to express concern at the proposed closure of degree courses in English Language and Literature at Sheffield Hallam University.

The linguistics team at Sheffield Hallam have earned a significant reputation for their work in all areas of applied linguistics, and their research underpins the high-quality teaching enjoyed by students. In my role as subject leader of Linguistics at Nottingham Trent University, I attended research seminars with members of the English language team, most notably Dr Jodie Clark who served as our external examiner for a number of years. I currently follow Jodie’s podcast ‘Structured Visions’ which is a model of academic outreach and how to make research accessible.

As a former chair of the TEF and a board member of HESA, you will be aware that measures of teaching quality have now been subsumed under the metric of LEO graduate outcomes.  Scrutiny of these offers a means of making intra- and inter-institutional comparisons between courses. This tableau from Wonkhe has been devised so that the government’s Start to Success graduate outcomes (based on percentage of students continuing to a degree and progressing to highly skilled employment) can be mapped across courses and universities. Sheffield Hallam English Language scores 9.5 out of 10; English Literature scores 8.28. These scores compare well to the local Russell Group University of Sheffield where English language and Linguistics scores 8.55 and English Literature scores 8.8. You will also be aware that the Sheffield Hallam English courses lie at the top end of course STS scores across the university, with course scores ranging from 5.5 – 9.5. They are, then, strong courses whose graduates progress to highly skilled occupations.

Turning to the recent 2021 REF results, it is apparent that the English UoA submission has achieved the second highest GPA in the university at 3.19, with 42% of its research in the 4* category and 35% at 3*. Again, this compares well with the University of Sheffield English Language and Literature with 4* 53% and 3* 37%.

If a student applicant is concerned about teaching quality, outcomes and careers after graduation, there would be no reason to prefer to study English at the University of Sheffield over Sheffield Hallam, other than concern over perceived prestige. I would argue that the way to make gains on that front would be to invest in those courses which lead to enhanced opportunities, underpinned by excellent research-led teaching. Cancelling the university’s strongest programmes would seem to undermine progress towards meeting the government’s agenda on delivering high-quality courses which contribute to levelling up opportunities in the region.

There may be a temporary fall in applications, but a degree in English Language makes for a very marketable graduate. A distinctive feature of the English Language degree at Sheffield Hallam is the placement year option. High quality placements have been shown in a study by Nottingham Trent University to reduce the graduate outcomes gap between economically-fortunate and more deprived students.  

The more extensive the range of modules, the wider the choice of postgraduate opportunities. English language or linguistics is essential for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), and many students seek employment abroad after graduation. Others progress to teacher training where an understanding of language structure and function is vital for teaching English in schools. Methods of linguistic analysis such as corpus linguistics are widely applicable in research areas from parliamentary research to AI. The study of language, identity, digital communication and pragmatics all offer skills which can be applied to teaching, journalism, marketing or the development of search engine optimisation.

I accept that the marketisation of universities has presented us with some contradictions, and these must be difficult for any leader to manage effectively. The reactive strategy suggests prioritising response to applicant choice in courses, but this requires constant revision of the course portfolio in order to accommodate shifting popularity. The pro-active strategy is to identify the university’s strengths in teaching, research and outcomes, and support their development. I imagine a university employs a marketing team in order to persuade students to enrol in such proven high-quality courses. If marketing fails to persuade, what is marketing for?

The fact that English at Sheffield Hallam has attained such high scores in the new STS measures of teaching and in the REF, and that these have been achieved in the context of the pandemic and large-scale disruption of teaching, is remarkable and should be the occasion for celebration. To close these courses and place careers at risk when staff have met all that could be asked of them would be an object lesson in how to demoralise an entire university.

Having an awareness of language structure and usage is crucial for so many areas of work. It is also one of those humanities disciplines most critical for sustaining democracy. I urge you to reconsider proposed course closures in English.

Yours sincerely,

Liz Morrish (Ph.D.)

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