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Sussex scraps BA Languages and Intercultural Studies without transparency or accountability

We must be under no illusion: the withdrawal of this BA will have a negative impact on the decolonization of the curriculum and the University of Sussex’s image as a “Global” university.

The University of Sussex’s brand new BA Languages and Intercultural Studies (LIS) degree programme, which was to have received its first intake of students this autumn, has been scrapped - on the recommendation of a firm of consultants who did not contact anyone at the Sussex Centre for Language Studies (SCLS) during their research.

The BA LIS was designed as a replacement for the Modern Languages degree that has already been axed, with the last cohort of students doing their finals this year. It was specifically designed to be central to the decolonization of the curriculum and to fit in with the “internationalization” strategy, which the University of Sussex claims to support.

This decision has been taken despite the following, published on a University of Sussex Webpage (click on Course/Pathway withdrawal or suspension): "It is important that Schools appreciate that withdrawal of an undergraduate course in the middle of an applications cycle is not permissible. Therefore, Schools should propose withdrawals for the first appropriate year unaffected by the current applications cycle."

Staff at SCLS were informed in a hastily arranged meeting on 20 January that the University Executive Group (UEG) had proposed the withdrawal of the BA LIS, which was due to be launched in the 2021-22 academic year, following validation in October 2020 (though the “under validation tag” was removed only in November).

On Tuesday 26 January the School of Media, Arts and Humanities (MAH) education committee held a meeting where they heard evidence of the viability of the BA LIS, followed by a unanimous vote in favour of suspension, rather than withdrawal. A special meeting of the Portfolio Approval Committee (PAC) was convened on the same day, where they decided to keep the "suspended" label until the next full meeting scheduled for 9 February.

On the same date (26 January) an Extraordinary General Meeting of the Sussex University and College Union (UCU) branch unanimously passed a motion requesting that the withdrawal of the BA LIS be cancelled.

An open letter was signed by almost 250 academics, former students and external examiners and it was sent to all members of UEG on Friday 5th February. Some local MPs, UCML (University Council for Modern Languages and AULC (Association of University Language Communities) also voiced their support.

Despite all the indications that withdrawal would turn into suspension, the decision by PAC on 9 February was to withdraw the BA LIS.

Slow and systematic dismantling of Sussex languages education

The decision to axe the LIS programme before it even started is the latest blow in a slow, systematic dismantling of language degrees at Sussex over the last two decades. Until recently there were joint majors with a variety of different disciplines from across the university (including Anthropology, Philosophy, Art History, American Studies and on and on and on) with large cohorts. SCLS also offered a language minor, by which students did 25% of their degree with SCLS and attended the same classes as the other degree students (not electives); and they did a mandatory year abroad. Students could even do two language minors, for example Anthropology (50%) and Italian (25%) and Spanish (25%) - again, in language classes with SCLS degree students.

This was followed by the withdrawal of minors and all joint majors, except International Relations; no longer could a student study English Literature and French, for example. These natural combinations meant those students went to another university where they could study what they wanted. They also cut out single language degrees; we used to have students doing a BA Italian or BA Spanish, with no joint.

German was withdrawn as a degree in around 2012/13 and students could only study two languages (or with IR). Student numbers dropped, but there were still enough for the degrees to run.

In July 2018, the University announced that Italian would be cut at degree level, followed by the announcement in September 2018 that all Modern Languages degrees would be withdrawn. Even though the numbers per language were still healthy, they chose to look only at the numbers doing Spanish and French, Italian and French, Italian and Spanish and Language and IR.

There is evidence that these tactics have been used to undermine other degree programmes, with previously healthy numbers of students.

Loss of transparency, accountability and global reputation

It is important to ask why PAC is allowed to make decisions on programme withdrawals behind closed doors. Questions are being asked in relation to governance, accountability, and transparency. How can Senate decision making be undermined in this way? These questions need answers now: with the Portfolio Review under way, it is important that this process is subject to proper scrutiny.

It is also important to ask why there are no papers for PAC available to staff since October 2020, when PAC had formally constituted meetings on 17 Nov 2020 and 9 Feb 2021. PAC is listed as a sub-committee of Senate, yet there are no PAC minutes available since the meeting of 6 Feb 2020, over a year ago. How are Senators, and the staff they represent expected to understand the nature of the decisions made by PAC?

We must be under no illusion: the withdrawal of this BA will have a negative impact on the decolonization of the curriculum and the University of Sussex’s image as a “Global” university. The reassurance that languages will still be an important part of what Sussex offers, with a programme of elective courses, sounds hollow given the reality. We know that this very short-sighted decision will undoubtedly damage the reputation of this University. For these reasons we must ask that Senate has the last word on all programme withdrawals and that transparency and accountability is upheld. We cannot allow this to be the end of the road for the BA LIS.


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