THE University of Aberdeen is planning major cutbacks to its modern languages department, risking its potential closure and the end of honours programmes in French, Gaelic, German and Spanish.

The university's senior management team (SMT) informed languages staff on Thursday that they were all at immediate “risk of redundancy”.

At present, modern languages is the only university department facing this threat.

The SMT created a “steering group” in October comprising several members of SMT staff. The group announced its three “recommendations” on November 30. These included:

  • “Discontinue single honours in French, Gaelic, German and Spanish and rationalise the programme offering to reduce the number of courses required to deliver the remaining joint honours provision.”
  • “Discontinue single and joint honours French, Gaelic, German and Spanish programmes but retain a suite of ‘with language’ programmes (for example, International Business with French).”
  • “Discontinue all programmes which have a named language component but continue to offer language courses that could be taken by students as elective courses where this can be accommodated in their degree programme. This would typically be at first year and to a lesser extent second year level of studies.”

The university’s SMT justified its proposals by highlighting a decline in students taking languages degrees.

However, languages staff have argued decreased uptake has only come post-Covid and follows a failure to recruit undergraduate students across the university.

They also blamed Brexit for a gradual decline in EU students who previously made up a large proportion of the languages department, including Gaelic.

An anonymous source told The National the plans would have a serious impact on Gaelic education at the University of Aberdeen, one of only four universities in the world offering Gaelic degrees.

They added that, if implemented, the recommendations would violate the university’s own statutory Gaelic language plan established in 2014, committing the university to Gaelic education and research. This would make the University of Aberdeen “the first public authority in Scotland to renege on its Gaelic plan".

As part of that plan, the university pledged to promote "a positive image of Gaelic", increase the learning of Gaelic and "increase the use of Gaelic".

'Linguistic vandalism'

The anonymous source condemned the plans as “cultural, historic, and linguistic vandalism,” citing the University of Aberdeen’s long Celtic heritage.

“Gaelic has had a role at the University of Aberdeen since its foundation in 1495,” they said. “Bishop Elphinstone, the university’s founder, was a Gaelic scholar and his tomb has Gaelic around it.”

The university has taught the Gaelic language since the start of the 20th century, and in recent decades has built up a reputation for introducing Gaelic to first timers.

READ MORE: Huge number of Scots Gaelic learners revealed by Duolingo

Unlike Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the University of Aberdeen offers Gaelic undergraduate degrees to complete beginners.

“It’s not just about Gaelic in Scotland,” said the source. “People outside Scotland are fascinated by our culture and our history and our language. An ancient university like Aberdeen owes it to its history and to future generations to keep that culture alive.”

The source added: “A good percentage of local school teachers are Aberdeen graduates, and they’re already struggling to reduce teachers in the northeast … Languages are a core part of the Scottish school curriculum. We have a duty to be preparing graduates and future teachers.”

Gaelic departments at the University of Glasgow, UHI and the University of Edinburgh are in the process of writing to the University of Aberdeen’s SMT to argue a “need for delivery in the north east which can’t be replaced by their existence".

What now?

On November 30, Aberdeen University Scottish Nationalist Association announced a “cross-party, cross-society” student campaign to protest the university’s proposals.

They have so far written an open letter to the Cabinet Secretary for Education, Jenny Gilruth (below) and the Minister for Higher and Further Education, Graeme Day. The Scottish Government is yet to respond.

The National: Education secretary, Jenny Gilruth

Amid outcry, the university’s court and senate are holding emergency meetings in the next two weeks to “discuss the legitimacy of the steering group to stop teaching”.

The SMT is expected to make its decision on which of its steering group’s three proposals to adopt on January 15, 2024.

A spokesperson for Aberdeen University told The National: "The university remains committed to a long-term strategy for sustaining Gaelic education provision in partnership with other universities, the Scottish Funding Council, Education Scotland and Bòrd na Gàidhlig."