Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Leeds University: A Curriculum of Errors - By Frank Ellis

Since our inception in 1997, we have broadened our intellectual framework and built on our existing specialisms within gender relations. We now incorporate ‘race’, masculinities, sexualities, queer and trans- theories into our research work which has a core focus on the body. (Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies, Leeds University)

Please mark for content only – Do not penalise for errors of spelling, grammar or punctuation (written instructions given to Dr Frank Ellis at the University of Leeds before marking a 2nd year grammar exam, 2004-2005)

The University of Leeds has aspirations to world class status (University and College Union, Leeds University)

© Frank Ellis 2010

The financial crisis which now confronts Leeds University (and other universities) has its origins in the egalitarianism of both New Labour and, it must be said, the Conservative Party. It was after all a Tory government that abandoned the distinction between polytechnics and universities, so imposing unitary status and preparing the way for the influx of large numbers of poorly qualified students into tertiary education. Inflaming this expansionist fever was also an assumption, encouraged by politicians and academics, that all who wanted to go to university, should be able to do so; that, indeed, going to university was akin to a human right. It is no such thing. Potential students have the right to pursue access to a university place, subject to their meeting the academic requirements for entry and being able to secure the necessary funding. If they are unable to meet the entrance requirements, they must seek other avenues of personal advancement. The huge increase in the numbers of students that started to overwhelm universities from the mid 1990s onwards inevitably resulted in course requirements being watered down to accommodate students who earlier would have been rejected. Too many students were granted access to courses for which they were ill prepared and for which they were intellectually unsuited. At the same time, they will have incurred large debts. Even worse, they soon discover in the world of mortgages and council tax that the much vaunted degree in gender studies or film studies does not impress a hard-headed employer. Over the last fourteen years the governing bodies of British universities have behaved in way which bears more than a passing resemblance to those other would-be masters of the universe, the banks, now rightly castigated for their incompetence. For their part, and in pursuit of a sub-prime clientele, the universities encouraged a reckless increase in student numbers regardless of academic ability. In the process they cruelly deceived many applicants about the benefits and costs of higher education, lied to the British taxpayer and will almost certainly have inflicted severe long-term damage on higher education itself. As regards Leeds University, I am bound to ask whether Michael Arthur, the vice chancellor of Leeds University and chairman of the Russell Group of universities, who presided over this porcine rush after fool’s gold, is competent to deal with his own local crisis and the national one that he and his fellow vice chancellors have done so much to create.

Russian Language and Literature at the University of Leeds

Between 1992 and 2006 I taught in the Department of Russian Studies, part of the School of Modern Languages and Cultures (SMLC), at Leeds University. In addition to my specialist Russian media course, based on a study of Marxist-Leninist ideology, censorship and post-Soviet media law, I used to teach two general courses on nineteenth century and twentieth century Russian literature, courses running over the academic year based on the novels of Dostoevsky, the twentieth century Russian novel, and one on Solzhenitsyn, as well as language teaching at all levels. I also prepared a special subject course on Russian war literature. Over this period expansion was primarily driven by egalitarian considerations, referred to in educational bureaucratese as ‘widening participation initiatives’, and pushed hard by ambitious senior university figures anxious to ingratiate themselves with their political masters. I was able to witness first hand the consequences of this expansion on academic standards and to gain some insights into its impact on financial planning in the SMLC.

Now most people will take it for granted that Russian literature in British universities is read and studied in Russian. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Very few first-year students come to university with a Russian A level, and even when they do, such has been the decline in the A level over the last 15 years or so, that the top grades do not tell an admission tutor a great deal about a student’s abilities. Teachers in secondary education have presided over a deliberate and systematic inflation of A Level grades with the aim of undermining confidence in the examination. They have succeeded. Teachers generally, and teachers’ unions specifically, detest the sorting effects of examinations. Indeed, many teachers hate examinations and undoubtedly would, if they could get away with it, abolish them completely and rely on course work. I frequently encountered students at Leeds with A and B grades at A Level Russian whose knowledge of basic Russian grammar was pitifully weak. These students, and remember these are the students, who on paper are supposed to be the best linguists, are unable in their first year at university to cope with reading even short Russian novels in Russian let alone something substantial. This is an appalling indictment of modern language teaching in our secondary system and when I left Leeds University in 2006 there were no signs that the situation was improving.

In fact, the situation may never improve while universities collude with politicians to accept students who are unable to meet the demands of higher education. The majority of students who study Russian at university these days study the subject ab ovo. Most of their effort will be applied to gaining sufficient mastery of the language and they will have little time or interest in reading a major Russian novel in Russian. Another factor must be taken into account. In 1993, Leeds University, in keeping with other universities, went over to what is known as a modular system. The modular system allocates a certain number of credits to a module and the student must amass a minimum number of credits in order to qualify for his degree. The modular system also provided for students to do a course outside of the main subject. One direct consequence of the modular system was to reduce the amount of time available in the curriculum to cover material in any depth.

A look at the twentieth century Russian novel course highlights the problems of the modular system. Students taking this course would have to read and study four novels. Typically this would be Vasilii Grossman’s Life and Fate (1988) or Forever Flowing (1970), Boris Pasternak’s Doktor Zhivago (1957), Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita (1966-1967) and Andrei Platonov’s The Foundation Pit (1987). Set texts would vary according to their availability in English translation. Doktor Zhivago and Life and Fate are substantial novels, the others only marginally less so. Given the other demands of the curriculum, it is beyond the reach of most students to start reading the prescribed texts at the beginning of the module. Most students make decisions about what to do at the start of the academic year and leave themselves very little time to get the reading done before the relevant class begins. One consequence of this is that when the twentieth century Russian novel course begins with, say, Life and Fate hardly any students will have started to read this major novel, let alone have completed it and made the necessary notes. Given that about four weeks will be allocated to the study of Life and Fate, seminars based on this novel are predictably one-sided affairs. A small group of students who have read the novel and the lecturer end up doing all the talking. Students who have not read the novel or in some cases not even bothered to buy a copy are not able to make any useful contribution in class. Another factor conspires to reduce the material covered. The twentieth-century Russian novel course is assessed on the basis of two essays which have to be written on two of the set texts. Many students, having decided on which set texts they will write their essays, do not bother to read the other two and often do not bother to turn up in the class in which they are taught. This is common practice and something I found deeply dispiriting. I soon discovered that the way to deal with lazy and incompetent students was not to let allow myself to get angry with them. If they want to borrow money to waste their time and absent themselves from core classes, they are free to do so.

The modular system is designed to be open to students from other departments in the university. For example, a student in the Department of English taking a course in the nineteenth-century English novel might well wish to study the Russian novel or a student majoring in Russian history might want to study Solzhenitsyn. Students from these departments tended to be of a much higher intellectual calibre than students majoring in Russian studies and given that there was great financial pressure to attract such high quality students, then this was another factor that favoured studying literature in English translation. My experience of teaching Russian literature in English translation leaves me in no doubt that high quality students who are not studying the Russian language but who study Russian literature in translation can produce exceptionally good work.

A Russian department in which, for whatever reasons, Russian literature is primarily read in English translation and not in the Russian original is an imitation of a Russian department: it is a façade, an academic Potemkin village. Lecturers in the English Department could argue that since the Russian department does not offer Russian literature in Russian but in translation the case for a dedicated Russian department has been greatly weakened. In my opinion they have a point. A Russian department’s status in the university and the wider academic world depends, among other things, on its expertise in analysing and interpreting the primary texts in the Russian language, an expertise which it is duty bound to impart to its student body. If the transmission of that expertise is neglected out of non-academic considerations – administrative, time-tabling convenience and financial pressures – then that status is undermined and the justification for retaining a dedicated Russian department is further weakened. The trend towards reaching literature in translation makes a strong case for teaching all literature in translation within a large department, possibly the English Department, or maybe a new entity, the Department for the Study of World Literature in Translation. Russian literature would then enjoy no unique status but would simply be one of a number of foreign literatures to be read. Moreover, if a student had no interest in literature – and many do not – and his sole aim was to learn Russian then there is no need to retain a Russian department. He would simply be sent to the University’s Foreign Language Centre or some such entity where much of his pursuit of Russian could be self-directed (or he could pay for private tuition). Likewise, experts in the Russian economy, history, media and philosophy would be allocated to the various departments specialising in economy, history and so on assuming there was any kind of need, and, of course that the departments designated as potential hosts wanted additional staff.

SMLC Deficits

Evidence that financial restructuring of SMLC (including compulsory redundancies where necessary) was required was clear well before the onset of the current recession. The scale of the problem was set out in a three-page briefing paper, SMLC Briefing Paper, which was given to academic members of staff of SMLC in January 2005. For example, in June 2004 SMLC was instructed to make cuts of about £200,000 per annum while generating another £200,000 per annum. The projected budgetary deficits for the next 5 years made in 2004 were as follows:

2004-2005: £422,000
2005-2006: £474,000
2006-2007: £471,000
2007-2008: £368,000
2008-2009: £246,000

Despite the scale of these budgetary deficits, the SMLC set a whole range of future and ambitious academic priorities: maintain the number of languages on offer in its undergraduate and post-graduate courses (offering new languages from South Asia); secure student numbers; achieve the highest possible score in the Research Assessment Exercise 2008; develop international activities and on-line teaching; develop its regional profile through widening participation initiatives; invest in the skills of all staff; develop interdisciplinary teaching and courses; and deploy new and existing resources to achieve the best results (SMLC Briefing Paper, January 2005).

Three points can be made here. First, bear in mind that the peak years for the projected deficits coincide with the peak of the boom and subsequent bust and one can appreciate that the attempts by SMLC to cope with budgetary deficits predicted before the boom ended will have been made extraordinarily difficult if not impossible. Note that the document concludes with the following observation: ‘The effect of our very large deficit will be to delay attempts to undertake the necessary steps to meet our priorities. Thus any university support to help us reduce our deficit is regarded as essential for the future development of what is the UK’s largest institutional provider of modern languages’ (SMLC Briefing Paper, January 2005). Second, the university (tax payer) cannot be expected to offer endless financial support to schools and sub-divisions that cannot pay their way. Third, and in some ways, this is the crux of the whole funding crisis the SMLC ambitions set out above clearly require an immediate scaling down. This should have been obvious in January 2005. In 2010 it is survival-critical and unavoidable. For example, why is it essential that SMLC remain ‘the UK’s largest institutional provider of modern languages’?

Some Possible Changes

Now is the time to reshape the whole academic year. I offer some suggestions. A few years ago I put it to some students that their academic and financial interests would be best served by reducing the length of the degree course to 3 years, possibly 2 years. At the present time students spend too much time away from the university, time which makes an insufficient contribution to their degree course and which costs them money in travel and paying for vacant accommodation. Long student vacations should be one of the first things to face the axe. Students gain nothing from paying for a three-year/four-year degree course and then spending six months out of every academic year on vacations. Far better that student vacations be reduced from six months to six weeks for the whole year and that students be compelled to work longer hours and more days per week (including Saturdays). The same should apply to academics since the current academic year is designed to suit their needs not those of students. There are indeed academics that need time free of teaching in order to pursue worthwhile academic research, but many find it too demanding and time-consuming. The solution to this problem is to re-write contracts so that those who are able and wish to pursue research can and that those who prefer to concentrate on teaching and administration are free to do so. Rewritten contracts can set out the medium and long-term targets required in both cases.

Modern-language students in most British universities spend part or all of their third year abroad. It is taken for granted that the time they spend there is excellent value for money: there are, it is claimed, dramatic improvements in the language being studied; institutional links are established and fostered; students experience different cultures first hand. In short, it is argued, the benefits are indisputable: they need no justification. I disagree. The arrangements currently obtaining for the dispatch of students to their chosen country are: (i) expensive; (ii) represent an unacceptably large drain on staff time (read money); (iii) unnecessarily lengthen the time spent acquiring the degree; and (iv) and perhaps worst of all do not deliver the academic benefits used to justify the time and trouble. There are undoubtedly benefits to be had from time spent in a foreign-language environment, but, and I regard this as the key to the way ahead, the claimed benefits can be delivered in Britain at greatly reduced cost and without the administrative burdens.

Among modern-language teachers one finds an almost mystical faith in the power of the time spent abroad to improve the language skills of even the least able students. Time spent abroad is in itself no guarantor that the command of, say, German will improve. Discipline and application are necessary. It is by no means clear to me how the student whose poor attendance and weak language work in Britain will suddenly improve when abroad, especially when the temptations and excitement will almost certainly overcome what little self-discipline he has. We might consider whether all students should go abroad. There is a strong case for using the time abroad as way of rewarding those students who meet certain academic standards before being awarded a place abroad; divisive no doubt, but those who work harder than others surely deserve the rewards. A reduction in available places would save money and time. Competition for a reduced number of places would be fierce and would raise standards. In this option time spent abroad would be seen as an indicator of academic quality control, conferring superior status on selected students. The pursuit and enjoyment of some of the cultural and less rigorous educational benefits - museums, making friends, concerts and internal travel - can come after the degree has been acquired and at the former student’s own expense. In any case, most of the languages offered by SMLC at Leeds and other similar departments are the languages of EU states: French, Portuguese, Spanish, German and Italian. Travel to and from these states has never been easier and means that a mandated year for language learning is not required within the degree course. Physical access to the Middle East (Arabic), Russia, China and Japan is not as easy as to EU states but not insuperable. However, the Internet and satellite television properly used - al-jaziira is outstanding - are excellent and cost-effective substitutes. The opportunities provided by the Internet, satellite television and other electronic media should be seized and fully exploited. In view of the fact that SMLC will now have to abandon its ambitions to remain ‘the UK’s largest institutional provider of modern languages’, Russian, Chinese, Arabic and Japanese departments should be considered for closure or downsizing.

The key to the mastery of any language to degree standard is regular and serious reading in the target language. Unfortunately, students no longer read. They read as little as possible in English and only a fanatically dedicated handful will attempt something such as Gogol’s Dead Souls (1842) in Russian, let alone The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880). Students who acquired their degrees before the introduction of the modular regime had no excuse for not reading major works of literature, such as Dr Zhivago or Ivan Denisovich (1962) in the original Russian. In the days of the modular supermarket, any tutor who was foolhardy enough to demand that students read the set texts in Russian would soon be addressing rows of empty chairs. The trouble is that some of those chairs should not be occupied in the first place. Students who do not wish to immerse themselves in the great canonical Russian texts are denying themselves an opportunity to experience Russian culture in a way which is quite unique. Given the constraints on time and other resources, the most efficient and cost-effective way to linguistic mastery and cultural understanding is through reading. Reading does not require that the student be located in Moscow, Krasnodar or Volgograd, despite the claims of modern language departments’ promotional literature and however desirable it may appear to a student. A table in a quiet and cold room in Leeds will do just fine. Students who wish to spend a year in Moscow can do so as part of their gap year before they attend university or after graduation. In an earlier age, when student numbers were much smaller, the leisurely passage through a modern language degree course with a year abroad was feasible. In straitened financial circumstances, circumstances which will continue to impose their discipline on universities for years to come, the year abroad can either be retained for small numbers of high-achieving élite students (ideally) or abolished. It cannot continue in its present form.


Not all student applicants are equally endowed with the necessary self-discipline, interest, determination and intellectual ability to be able to pursue a worthwhile course in tertiary education. These arguments against mass higher education are not new. They were made during the expansion of higher education during the 1960s and those who advanced them were soon vindicated. The latest round of expansion which started to accelerate in the mid 1990s has proved to be even more unwieldy and threatening to the university ethos. Higher education is now expected to be inclusive which means that it must host a miscellany of pseudo-intellectual misfits – gender studies and black studies are two obvious examples - which are hostile to notions of intellectual rigour, objective truth, evidence and, above all, as this author can personally attest, to free speech and academic freedom. Gender studies and black studies have no place in a university: they are little more than grievance factories; they should be targeted for immediate closure. Vice-chancellors, university secretaries, the heads of departments and schools, who do not defend the essentials of a university for reasons of ideological and financial expediency, or who fail out of plain cowardice to confront the charlatans, cease to preside over a university. They also signally fail to discharge their academic, fiscal and moral duties. Now universities must retrench and face the consequences of their greed and unjustified ambitions. Like the rest of the public sector in UK plc, more than one premier league football club and the banks, universities must learn to live within their means. In the long period of austerity which awaits us all they would also do well to reflect on the purpose of their ancient institutions.


Dr.D said...

Well, Dr. Ellis, I concur in just about everything that you have said. I have been there, seen it for myself, and I know exactly what you are talking about.

"Inflaming this expansionist fever was also an assumption, encouraged by politicians and academics, that all who wanted to go to university, should be able to do so; that, indeed, going to university was akin to a human right."

The impostor BHO has recently spoken explicitly about just such a right, which, of course, is false. In the US, the result of this thinking has been to drastically degrade the level of college and university education throughout the country.

My own parents were both college graduates at a time when this was rather uncommon in the US. As a result, I grew up with the understanding that I would go to college also, and I did. Today, everyone is expected to go to college just because they have nothing else to do, even if they have no real purpose in doing so and will develop extreme debts in the process. We have gone from a time when only a small fraction of the population had a college education to a time when a college education is considered no more than a high school diploma. And in many ways, it is just about that.

My own reading on this is that as a society we have devalued true education at the same time that we have abandoned the concept of Truth. Now that most of the academic establishment is firmly committed to relativism, so that there is no longer any Truth, there really is no longer any excellence in scholarship and learning. I think we are heading into a new "Dark Age."

alanorei said...

As an ex-HE lecturer at a new university about a couple of hours' drive north from Leeds University, I, like Dr. D, essentially agree with what Dr. Ellis has said.

I am very familiar with the notorious term "widening participation."

It could also be expressed as "shallowing participation" as Dr. Ellis makes clear.

For most of the last decade that I was at the university, all the management was interested in was student revenue i.e. to any parent reading this, your son or daughter was just an 'FTE' Full-time Equivalent, cost unit.

He or she was not an individual as such.

I also encountered the 'one-size-fits-all' modular scheme of evil memory and the inexorable decline in academic content of our courses.

Our course, Chemical Engineering, was an academically demanding course and therefore, because our level of student 'participation' wasn't wide enough, the university tried on 2 occasions to shut us down, leading to intense negotiations between management and the academic staff union.

It has to be said these negotiations were greatly assisted by the chief negotiator on the management side, the then Vice Chancellor, who is now the Vice Chancellor. He was and is an enlightened and reasonable individual but somewhat of an exception therefore.

Our course survived but ironically, a large proportion of its current students are from the Mideast, so our university trains graduates to help their homelands to compete against what is left of British industry.

Regrettably, university authorities are not bothered about back-stabbing of this nature provided that the annual operating surplus cash flow is healthy.

As St Paul said in 1 Timothy 6:10, KJB:

"The love of money is the root of all evil."

Reaching as far as at least implicit national betrayal through educating foreigners.

Urban Commando said...

As St Paul said in 1 Timothy 6:10, KJB:

"The love of money is the root of all evil."

Reaching as far as at least implicit national betrayal through educating foreigners.

WELL SAID! This country has been run down through the practises of accountants and financial controllers, putting the bottom line before the future.