Petition Saves Second Language Programs at University of Saskatchewan

A recent news release from the Academia Group gave highlights from this article in the Star Phoenix by Sean Tremblath: “U of S language program cuts re-examined after petition“. The article starts with this punchy first line:

“A University of Saskatchewan language program is being overhauled after speculation of major cutbacks sparked a student petition with almost 2,000 names.”

The article goes on to talk about scheduled cuts to language programs at the University of Saskatchewan, and in particular to the German program. The result was a petition to save the program that received 2000 signatures – in 3 days. The article quotes David Parkinson, Vice Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts, a man I’ve met in my professional travels and have a great deal of respect for. He can see “the big picture” and can balance students’ needs with high level administrative pressures. I’ve admired his work for a long time… and don’t envy him one bit right now.

Language programs are being cut or having their funding reduced at alarming rates in North American schools and universities. Really, it’s shameful.

Here’s my response, in the form of a Letter to the Editor of the Star Phoenix:

I’m writing in response to Sean Tremblath’s article “U of S language program cuts re-examined after petition”, published on April 13, 2011.

Three cheers for the students at U Sask, who evidently know the value of learning languages in the 21st century and were willing to petition to keep language courses alive and well.

Cutbacks to second and modern language programs in North American universities is very troubling – particularly when all of Europe, as well as countries on other continents are encouraging – even mandating – the study of additional languages.

I’ve met David Parkinson, Vice Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts, who is quoted in the article and I have a great deal of respect for him. He’s a man who can see “the big picture” and can balance students’ needs with high level administrative pressures.

I’ve admired his work for a long time… and don’t envy him one bit right now. He now faces a situation that language program administrators across North America face: Advocating for the viability of modern language programs in a system that has changed its criteria for what it will support based on bottom-line numbers and a philosophy that says “bums in seats = program success”.

Across Canada and the US, we seem preoccupied with cutting programs that have lower enrolments or those for which there is less financial justification. As a specialist in the integration of business practices and philosophies into higher education management, and in particular, the marketing and management of language programs in Canadian universities, I am saddened when I see this. My own research in this field has shown me that the bottom line is not the only indicator of success in education. In fact, it’s probably one of the least powerful indicators of success of an educational program. Better questions to ask are: What skills are needed by 21st century professionals and leaders? How do we, as educational institutions, ensure that we are building the capacity of our students to set them up for success as global citizens in a digital age?

Language learning programs don’t need to be cut from educational institutions. They need to be updated. Get away from literature-based programs that revolve around faculty interests and focus on the students. It’s time to incorporate real-world language skills that students can carry with them into their future professional and personal lives. Focus on global citizenship, technology, mobile language learning (MALL), and other aspects of learning that actually make sense and are relevant for language learners of today.

If we updated the programs with a focus on making them truly learner centred, rather than focussing on the traditional literature-based programs that reflect the specializations of current or soon-to-retire faculty, then we might be better at engaging our students and increasing our enrolments.

Kudos to the students and all those who signed the petition at U Sask for having the vision to see the benefits of language learning in the 21st century. The challenge goes back to the institution to create relevant programs that keep learners engaged, provide them with real world skills and develop courses that fill the seats because they’re so darned interesting and relevant that students will beat down the doors to get into them.

I encourage you to read the original article and send your own Letter to the Editor to support the continuation and growth of second language programs at Canadian universities!


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


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