Czech language and literature: a 'minority' subject at risk in the U.K.?


The number of students studying modern languages at British universities has been on the wane in recent years, as is the trend throughout much of Europe. There are fewer and fewer degree programmes in "minority languages" like Czech on offer in the United Kingdom, with long-term governmental funding at risk.

"Classic language and literature studies have been at the cornerstone of Czech studies: are they still relevant in today's world? Can they attract student interest? Can they compete for scarce funds?"

"It's no longer enough to teach only the Czech language: more and more students tend to choose multidisciplinary programmes."

"This ghastly 'studies' word is a word I associate very much with the actual beginning of dumbing down."

"Slavistics is a dead ideological approach, a dead ideological concept."

"Czech requires a department like a Russian department in order to exist."

A taste, there, of some of the sentiments put forth at a recent conference at the Czech Embassy in London on "New Trends in Czech Studies."

Although still in a better position than, say, Hungarian, very few U.K. universities today offer a full Czech linguistic and cultural programme; most students can study Czech only within a larger language department, such as Russian; indeed many students enter a Russian programme and pick up Czech — or another "competing" minority language — along the way.

It was against this backdrop that leading academics at British universities — and Czech officals, including ambassador to London Stefan Fule — met to discuss the future of Czech language and literature degree programmes in the U.K.

Ironically, two seminal events in recent Czech history -- the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and accession to the European Union last year - may actually have contributed to the death of a number of Czech studies programmes with their loss of "strategic value" after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

"What sort of future can one expect for Czech and Slovak studies? If German departments have difficulty recruiting students, if Chemistry, Architecture and Scandinavian departments are not able to pay their own way, what hope is there for Czech and Slovak studies that are and - let's be realistic - always will be of limited market value when seen from the point of view of the accountant's bottom line?"

Dr Tim-Beasley-Murray, there, a lecturer at SSEES, the London-based School of Slavonic and East European Studies, on the bottom line for any academic programme: funding.

He notes that the British Minister of Education, Charles Clarke, recently asked the Higher Education Funding Council for England to perform a revue of subjects, including minority languages. One saving grace for the Czech programmes, is that Minister Clarke has suggested that courses related to European Union accession countries in Eastern Europe and the Baltic are of "national strategic importance."

But while special treatment at the hand of central funding bodies might seem like good news -- ensuring the continued existence of Czech and Slovak Studies programmes -- it may ultimately lead to their "impoverishment," says Dr Beasley-Murray.

"My argument here is in essence that an increasingly narrow notion of 'national strategic importance' leads to an inexorable 'social-scientization' of Czech and Slovak Studies that may allow them to flourish in the short term but mean their severe impoverishment, if not extinction in the long term."

The overall funding trend is alarming, conference participants agreed. On top of that, says SSEES professor of Czech and Slovak Literature Dr Robert Pynsent, is a "worrying decline" in the overall numbers of students following specialist language and literature degrees.

"For some years now, it has been considered that there is a crisis in Czech, Slovak, Central European language studies. Recently, it has been said that this so-called crisis is part of a general trend in the United Kingdom - and indeed elsewhere - for schoolchildren not to take language-based degrees.

Instead of specialist language and literature degrees, greater numbers of students are pursuing generalised "cultural studies" degrees; something Prof Pynsent and others attribute to a wider trend of "dumbing down" in academia, with students steering away from "difficult" subjects like languages.

"As far as Czech is concerned, applications for undergraduate places remain very strong at Oxford. Since it is where one does one's undergraduate studies that in the end matters most for a graduate, the Oxford figures are heartening. Oxford, however, has not yet been cursed with course modularisation — that system produced by the 'sound bite' culture of inclusiveness and transparency. But then, Oxford still does literature properly and so undergraduates have a chance to learn the language pretty decently."

University of Bristol lecturer Rajendra Chitnis, says that, regrettably, under the banner of "cultural studies," a classic work of literature is often given as much cultural weight as the latest rap video.

"Though these types of course are presented in every sense as equivalent to literature courses, they fail in practice to provide students with the general or specific skills and knowledge that increasingly dissatisfied employers expect. Moreover, the reduction of a modern languages degree to a goulash of social sciences — plus language — will encourage universities in their attempts to remove lucrative language teaching from departments into commercial operations. The departments, having abandoned their roots in the humanities, will then simply wither."

Most university language departments in the United Kingdom are regarded as operating in deficit, and an increasing number are under threat of closure or reduction. One way for Czech language and literature departments to stem the tide, said participants in the London conference, would be to launch coordinated recruitment drives among UK universities, to promote Czech itself, rather than the individual programmes.

But the Czech government, too, must pull its weight, argues Prof Jan Culik of the University of Glasgow in Scotland, who notes that funding for popular summer school programmes in the Czech Republic - a proven devise for recruiting students of Czech - has been cut in recent years.

"Over the past year, the provision from the education ministry in Prague for these summer schools have been mysteriously cut down, which is a great problem for students who have actually studied Czech for a year and whose knowledge would be embedded - and suddenly, instead of being able to send five students, we've been told we can send two."

The Czech ambassador to London, Stefan Füle, who presided over the "New Trends in Czech Studies" conference, has promised to look into securing more funding for summer schools. He noted that within the framework of the Visegrad Four - The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary - he has already met with his counterparts about the possibility of funding a "high-profile" programme for Central European studies at Oxford.

Ambassador Fule says the Czech Parliament will also be asked to look into funding scholarships for foreigners to study at Czech universities. The embassy in London itself, Ambassador Füle says, will do more to coordinate with British universities to host events and otherwise help attract students.