Languages vs. Football (Well, Rugby)

The athletics vs. academics debate rages in Australian higher education, too -- with a twist.

July 30, 2013

Ending the University of Canberra's sponsorship of a professional rugby team would not make its language programs any more bankable, university leaders say.

"Languages, not football" has been the slogan of some opposing UC's decision to close all its language programs.

But a spokesman for the university said: "Diverting resources from unrelated activities elsewhere in the organization will not alter the viability of the language majors."

He would not comment on the cost to the university as the "principal partner" of Canberra's Brumbies rugby team; the "commercial aspects" were confidential.

An online petition to "save language studies at UC" has attracted several hundred signatures.

"The intelligent and ethical thing to do would be to scrap sponsorship of a rugby team in support of the teaching of languages, which is of far greater value and importance," says one signatory. "And there'd be a surplus, if the sponsorship value is what it is said to be."

Debates over the relative roles of athletics and academics have raged at institutions across the United States in recent years, and administrators' decisions to eliminate language programs have been the precipitating event at institutions such at the State University of New York at Albany and the University of Southern California.

UC has axed its Chinese, Japanese and Spanish programs, blaming low student numbers and the government's 2 percent "efficiency dividend," which was announced in April and means less public funding than expected.

Last year Japanese had been targeted for closure, then given a reprieve. The university now says that even a doubling of enrollments would not make its language programs viable.

The university has struck a deal with the Canberra-based Australian National University so that interested students can pursue languages there via cross-institutional enrollment. Australian National is a languages powerhouse.

Even so, a common theme on the petition seeking a reversal of Canberra's decision is that languages are an essential offering for any university at a time of globalized education.

One signatory says: "I need languages to have an international degree, what is UC even thinking!"

And another: "Stupid isn't it, wanting to attract international students, claiming to be a global university, but you have no interest in languages."

UC's 2013-2017 strategic plan says the university aspires to "international reach," and aims to turn out graduates with "intercultural competence."

It says it plans "to build a truly international UC that can thrive in a new era of globalized higher education and research."

It will pursue links with overseas universities, especially in Asia, and offer its students "immersive international experiences" with an Asia focus, thereby creating "cultural and global competencies as signature graduate outcomes of UC degrees."

On Friday Higher Education Minister Kim Carr announced a sectorwide stock taking of the humanities and social sciences, including trends in student numbers, infrastructure, areas of vulnerability and "gaps in capability.''

"Our capacity to respond to, and thrive in, the Asian Century relies on our humanities and social science research and teaching capability," Senator Carr said.

"These disciplines provide the cultural, linguistic and social perspectives required for our future economic, political and cultural advancement -- both regionally and globally."

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