History and languages closure at Aston University

We are extremely concerned about Aston University’s recent announcement that it intends to close its Department of History, Languages and Translation. These plans will damage Aston’s reputation and its ability to serve its main beneficiaries (students; business and the professions; region and society). They will also further weaken the vital role these disciplines play in the British higher education sector and society in general.

The main rationale given is that the university wants to ‘sharpen its offering’ by solely focussing on Health, Engineering and Business. 21 permanent staff and 3 fixed-term staff have been informed that their posts are ‘fully at risk’. Although the University has confirmed that it wants to avoid compulsory redundancies, these are likely as the affected programmes are taught out over the next four years.

The announcement to close down the department was made just before the Easter break, in the last week of an extraordinarily exhausting teaching term where the 24 staff now under threat provided excellent online teaching and support to their students under difficult conditions. This decision was announced on the same day colleagues were congratulated for their contribution to the Research Excellence Framework.

The University’s sudden choice to narrow Aston’s focus on Health, Engineering and Business fails to acknowledge that historical understanding, language proficiency, and intercultural competence are essential for operating responsibly and effectively in a globalised modern world. Aston’s own research shows that SMEs making use of language capabilities are 30% more successful in exporting than those who do not.

Staff in the department are involved in community engagement and research projects that make a difference to the Midlands and the world. One example, funded by Birmingham City Council and the British Academy, is a project run by Aston’s translation scholars that will improve public health in minority communities in East Birmingham by removing language barriers to important public health information through empowering community translators. The History programme has made important interventions in public debates on the legacies of Empire, slavery, and on violence against ethnic minorities in British history.

The proposed closure affects not just the undergraduate language programmes, which have recently been revamped to increase both recruitment and employability in line with the University’s strategic aims. Two internationally renowned Master’s programmes in Translation Studies are to be discontinued, as are the History programmes that were only introduced just under three years ago – with a six-figure investment by the University and rising recruitment figures – and whose first cohort is more than a year away from graduation.

Also under threat is the University’s Languages for All programme, a core part of the University’s widening participation strategy. Disinvesting in this programme will mainly disadvantage those students who have not had the opportunity to study languages at school, which is the case for the great majority of Aston’s student body. Language study adds valuable transferable skills to the students’ skills portfolio, such as critical thinking, problem-solving, resilience and intercultural awareness. Depriving students of the opportunity to access languages flies in the face of the University’s claim to internationalism and equal opportunities for all.

One of the widening participation programmes that is also at risk is Routes into Languages. Through our expertise in teaching modern languages and culture, staff from the department have provided leadership and coordination for the West Midlands arm of this national flagship outreach programme. Over recent years, the consortium has reached more than 15,000 underserved students in 455 schools in the region, often in disadvantaged areas.

This sweeping proposal to close a whole host of programmes and services has far-reaching implications with regards to how much we value language learning and the Humanities in general in the UK. Closing yet another language department – as well as a young, yet thriving History section – will only add fuel to the rhetoric that learning languages is unimportant and of little value, thus perpetuating the spectre of Anglophone monolingualism.

Please sign this petition and share it widely within your networks to help the Department of History, Languages and Translation at Aston University continue to play its vital role in Birmingham and beyond.

We also encourage you to send your emails of support to Aston’s Vice Chancellor Alec Cameron (c/o HR contact Claire Freeman: c.e.freeman@aston.ac.uk), requesting that they withdraw this proposal and enter a meaningful dialogue about the future of the disciplines in question.