Letter to Muscatelli from distinguished Glasgow Alumnus

Opinions of the Author

Dear Professor Muscatelli,

I am writing to follow up our brief earlier correspondence regarding the future of languages in Glasgow. First, I would like to thank you for having taken the time to read my initial letter to you, and also to thank Professor Pittock for taking the time to reply. The reply shows that my initial concerns were not misplaced; but, as it also indicates that your review is taking account of responses, I hope that my writing to you like this might influence the outcome in a way that is favourable to a consolidation and extension of language provision in Glasgow.

I write again therefore, as an alumnus of the University of Glasgow, to urge you to reconsider the plans being made that stand to jeopardise the future of several modern languages departments within the University of Glasgow.

I have followed the discussion of these matters in the press (especially THE), and have been dismayed to discover that the reasoning behind the proposed closure is ostensibly shaped by the specific priorities that you have in mind as determining of the future for the University, priorities that appear unfavourable to these languages. On Sunday 06 March, further, I have also read the letter to the Observer newspaper that you have co-signed with a number of your fellow VCs. In that letter, you indicate the dangers posed to Glasgow from the government’s proposed visa restrictions, whose effect will be to limit the number of foreign students attending the University.

It is extremely ironic that, while you appear to wish to draw foreign students to the University, you simultaneously appear to be making moves that will significantly reduce the chances of Glasgow’s students (including those in engineering, science and medicine) benefiting from the same kind of internationalist mentality.

It is difficult to see the logic that might unite these two positions: close foreign languages, welcome foreign students.

As a member of the Board of UUK, you were party to the decision of UUK to welcome the Browne Review, and to urge the government to implement it in full. One of the key recommendations in Browne is an explicit degradation of the work of colleagues in arts and humanities. However, even Browne was willing to make some concessions for ‘strategic languages’. Glasgow has a clear opportunity to take a lead in the defence of language provision within HE, and should offer a clear example of how to defend the very principles that govern a University education worthy of the name. Those principles share nothing with the presiding or governing ideas that inform what we now know to be the ill-researched, crude and lazily-considered review chaired by Browne.

I fully appreciate that a University has to balance its books, and that you, as Principal and Vice-Chancellor, have a major responsibility in this. I also acknowledge fully how difficult that can be. You will no doubt ask me what I would cut instead of the Slavic and associated languages that appear now to be in danger. My response will be to refuse the terms of the question. Instead of cutting, you and your UUK colleagues should have been making a much stronger case in defence of the institutions that you run, a defence of present students and colleagues, and a defence of the life chances of future students. That is why there should have been a different response to Browne, and a response that would have allowed VCs to make a strong case for securing a sustainable future on different terms from those of an ill-conceived and inappropriate rigged market whose foundation-stone is grounded in an idea of individual greed and personal profit.

The ethos that shapes Browne has no place in a University. Vico, in his annual Orations as Rector of Naples, would not have countenanced it, nor would Humboldt in Berlin, nor Newman in Dublin, nor Jaspers, nor Alain, nor Leavis. They would not have countenanced it for the simple reason that they were concerned with a University, and not with an institution that saw itself as an agent whose function was the management and enactment of governmental ideologies. Browne’s marketisation, with its consequent absolute prioritisation of the annual bottom-line, is an example of such ideology; and it is unworthy of a University. The degradation of arts and humanities, including languages, damages the whole ethos of what a University might be. Vico, Humboldt and these others I mention spoke languages other than English: they spoke languages concerned with humanity, humane studies, and the role of the University as custodian of great values.

In common with your many other correspondents on this, I cannot see that a route from which these languages are absent can lead to a sustainable strategy for a University worthy of the name, as Glasgow most certainly is; and so the route on which you have embarked is particularly inappropriate for Glasgow. You will be aware that significant numbers of Glasgow students come from within the Glasgow area, including parts of its economically and culturally impoverished hinterland. For many of these students (and I was one such), the University and the education it offers is a door that opens possibilities and worlds previously undreamt and unimaginable: foreign worlds that represent themselves in foreign words. The University opened doors for me, as for a number of my peers. Many of these colleagues now work abroad, where they spread the progressive and democratic educational ideology that formed them.

The languages here are not an optional extra: they touch on the very culture that is Glasgow, both city and university. Edwin Morgan’s poetry, as you know, is itself formed from various vernaculars, including the very Slavic languages that are now under threat. The threat to those languages is also a threat to English. Any crudely economistic short-termist ‘solution’ to long-term financial issues surrounding the university sector can only ever be parochial, and thus anathema to the very spirit of the University of Glasgow.

Accordingly, I urge you in the strongest possible terms to protect that history and that culture, to act as a guardian of these languages, and to preserve and extend foreign language provision at the outcome of your review.

Yours sincerely,

Thomas Docherty (Glasgow, 1973-78, French, English; Maths and Philosophy)

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