Senior language tutors: who needs them?

6 Nov

Clive Sneddon (retired)
Department of French

Immediately before pre-sessional week, the University of St Andrews made redundant the four remaining Senior Language Tutors (SLTs) in the School of Modern Languages (German, Italian, Russian and Spanish), one year after the retirement of the Senior Language Tutor in French. Their role in all five languages has been to provide continuity and expertise in language teaching, working with academic colleagues and annually appointed native speakers. Before these posts were created, no tutor or native language assistant in Modern Languages was formally trained to teach second language learners.

Recruitment to all five modern languages depends on the University’s reputation for teaching advanced language skills and the exploitation of those skills in academic work. This reputation has been excellent for many years, as shown by the continued high level of applications when the number of presentations at Highers and A levels has been falling. It has also been possible to attract students who wanted to start a language from scratch, except in the case of French, in which most pupils have had some experience at school; on the other hand, more Science students have wanted degrees with French than with any other modern language. These different circumstances have led to the five posts having an additional role in the training of Science students in French, and of beginners in the other four languages.

The reasons given for the redundancies show a failure by academics to understand what the post holders actually do, and what the posts make possible. It is claimed that (1) French has managed without an SLT, which is true only by make do and mend, relying on a lot of hourly-paid staff and adding to the administrative burden on academic staff; (2) the demise of separate teaching for Science students means the SLTs in the other four languages are not needed, ignoring the fact they never did any significant Science teaching; (3) SLTs earn no research income, though some could if they were allowed to, and all enable other academics to concentrate on research; (4) SLTs do no significant work in the summer, though all previous Heads of School have had detailed arrangements for the SLTs to prepare teaching material then.

Student reaction was immediate and very supportive, pointing out the key role played by SLTs in organising and structuring language teaching, and recognising their professionalism. Petitions were organised by students and academics, and many people wrote to the Principal and Master; representations were also made to the Scottish Minister and the Scottish Funding Council to seek more adequate funding for Modern Languages. University Managers conceded that the proposed redundancies did pose a risk to the effective delivery of language teaching, and could result in reputational damage to the University leading to a reduction in the number of good applicants and to reduced viability of the School, but argued that the financial situation of the School made redundancies necessary. By way of evidence, the University’s financial planning figures were made available, which proved not to incorporate actual figures from past years, did not include all overhead costs, and showed a surplus rather than a deficit. Taken at face value, they showed that income from research was variable and less than a quarter of the School’s income, whereas the remaining three quarters from teaching seemed more stable.

By insisting on making relatively small savings in the School’s budget, the University has diminished the effectiveness of teaching in the School, reduced its attractiveness to students, and lost the possibility of exploiting the SLTs’ professional expertise to allow academics to maximise the time spent on their specialist teaching and research. The School is already reducing the range of its specialisms, which undermines efforts to recruit more postgraduate students, and by burdening its academic staff with work which could be and willingly was undertaken by SLTs is still further reducing the scope for increasing earnings from both specialist teaching and research. What sort of financial and academic strategy is this?

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