Class, cuts, languages and academia

A couple of days ago on Twitter, Caroline Magennis asked the question ‘What are the challenges of being an academic from a less privileged background? Questions of ‘fitting in’ but also practical issues?’ Her tweet prompted numerous comments, which you can read on Storify.

I said that one big issue was access to language-learning, which got me thinking about the fact that my route to learning Italian as an adult has – in less than fifteen years – all but disappeared.

Back in 2001, when I first started thinking seriously about studying Italian history, I signed up for an Italian beginners class. It was held on Saturday mornings at a local further education college. Not any more. A quick look at the Lambeth College website shows that not only has that course disappeared, but also the GCSE and AS-Level courses I went on to take in subsequent years. The same is true of the vast majority of FE colleges, which now focus on what are supposedly more ‘vocational’ courses.

I could still go for the two-week language course I took in Rome in the summer of 2001. That comes in at €639.50 these days for lessons and accommodation, plus you need to add food and flights, so it’s likely to be a struggle for an indebted recent undergrad. (Fortunately I wasn’t particularly indebted, because I’m old enough to pre-date tuition fees… but that’s another story.) And besides, there’s only so much you can do with two weeks.

What really made the difference to my language skills was the overseas research allowance that used to be available alongside an AHRB/AHRC doctoral studentship. As a funded PhD student (I started in 2004), I was entitled to a grant for one overseas research trip of up to twelve months’ duration. The allowance for a year in Italy, which came on top of the standard PhD stipend, was £7,200. It sounds generous, and it was, but it served an important purpose of encouraging work in the humanities on non-Anglophone topics. It meant I could get on with research and not worry about money. I could afford twice-weekly one-to-one language lessons for the first six weeks, regular flights to visit my partner, the cost of storing my belongings in the UK, and lots of trips to archives around the country. And – not surprisingly after a year immersed in Italian – I came back to the UK with very good language skills that I’ve used in my academic work ever since.

But that opportunity has gone now. The overseas research allowance was scrapped with the switch to block grant funding, and instead doctoral students compete for whatever their local university can afford in terms of travel funds. Only a handful of well-off universities can now sustain their PhD students for more than a couple of months abroad: extensive work in foreign archives is becoming the preserve of a few.

The fact that these routes to language acquisition have been abolished means it’s even harder for students who didn’t have the advantage of learning, say, Latin or multiple modern languages at school to get into those areas of history that need languages. The language problem is partly an issue of social class, for sure. But it’s been exacerbated by cuts to both further and higher education in the past decade that make it harder than ever for people who didn’t start with language skills to catch up.