Letter and response from David Midgley

David Midgley is an emeritus professor of German Literature and Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge. Below you will find a letter sent by David Midgley, a response from the university, and his subsequent reply which brilliantly takes apart the PMO’s arguments for the cuts.

18 May 2017 13:26

Dear Mr Astle,

I am writing in response to the news that broke last week of Manchester University’s plans to terminate the employment of 171 members of staff. Information that has reached me suggests that this decision is questionable on both financial and ethical grounds, and I would appeal to the senior management of the University to reconsider.

In particular, it has been reported that the intention is to eliminate many senior academics and replace them with younger, cheaper teaching staff. If this is true it suggests that not only the personal interests of the staff concerned, but also the benefits to the broader academic community of the experience and expertise of senior staff members are being sacrificed to short-term financial calculations. Such practices can only be detrimental to the general morale of an academic body.

As a linguist I take particular interest in the fact that academic staff in a number of language areas have been told that their jobs are at risk. This news alone can only contribute further to the progressive debilitation of language study at university level which has been a peculiar feature of higher education in England in recent years. The need for the UK to nurture home-grown in-depth expertise in foreign languages and cultures is often emphasised by the business community as well as by the British Council and the British Academy, and that need is likely to increase in the wake of Brexit, not decrease. To allow the decline in language study at degree level to continue in these circumstances is benighted, to encourage that decline is reprehensible. Unless there is compelling evidence that makes the phasing out of teaching in some specific area advisable I would urge the senior management of the University to rescind its decision with regard to language provision in particular.

Yours sincerely,
David Midgley

David Midgley
Emeritus Professor of German Literature and Intellectual History
St John’s College

Reply from the University M2020 Programme management office:

23rd May 2017 13:29, Manchester2020 wrote:

Dear Professor Midgley,

We appreciate the time that you have taken to contact us regarding the proposal to increase entry tariffs in the School of Arts Languages and Cultures (SALC).

As you are no doubt aware, student recruitment in Modern Languages has shown a steady and continuous decline across the UK for several years. This has impacted on the quality of students admitted and is in spite of strenuous recruitment efforts by the University – with consequences for student experience, degree attainment and employability which are inconsistent with the University’s commitment to excellence.
The M2020 proposals will enable SALC to improve the degree attainment, satisfaction and employability of students through improving student intake standards. It is because it is not possible to recruit adequate numbers of students of sufficient quality that we have developed these proposals, a consequence of which is that the staffing levels in these declining areas are no longer financially sustainable.

We are committed to a strong foundation for Modern Languages at The University of Manchester, with the current breadth and depth of subjects continuing to be offered. The School’s Disciplines of Modern Languages have many areas of strength in teaching and research, of which as an institution we are very proud.

By continuing to provide access to quality Modern Language courses, we aim to support the UK to overcome the current language skills gap and continue to arm our graduates with the language skills that will enable them to live and work abroad, and pursue their professional and cultural ambitions.

We can assure you that our prime intention is to ensure that our students receive the best possible teaching and learning experience.

With best wishes,

Programme Management Office
On behalf of President and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell

Reply from David Midgley:

Dear PMO,

Thank you very much for your reply. Permit me to make three observations in response.

1. The fact that there has been a progressive decline in the study of languages at school level over the last thirty years does not in itself provide any indication of the quality of the students who are still opting to take a language at A level, nor of the calibre of applicants for language-based degree courses at Manchester. I recommend that you at
least give serious consideration to the review of Modern Foreign Languages at A level by the Joint Council for Qualifications, accessible at: 
and the technical report of Ofqual on assessment in language A levels at
https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/74376196.pdf, both dating from 2014, which show why the grading of language A levels has probably been excessively harsh at the upper end of the scale since the introduction of the A* grade in 2009.

2. The aims of which you speak – “to improve the degree attainment, satisfaction and employability of students through improving student intake standards” – are recognisably related to the metrics prescribed for the TEF, and thereby suggest that you are willing to sacrifice the interests of experienced academic staff in order to obtain a material advantage in that competitive process as it is phased in. If that is the case, your decision has provided immediate evidence of how the TEF system will be open to gaming by institutions that is likely to do long-term damage to the higher education sector overall.

3. By looking to student intake standards to strengthen your competitive position in the TEF you have provided a very clear example of why the metrics devised for the TEF are inherently detrimental to the educational interests of the UK: they will do nothing to widen access to high-quality higher education for able students and will serve rather to
restrict it to those who already enjoy educational advantage.

Yours sincerely,
David Midgley


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