READ: Our Chair’s letter to the Senior Vice Principal of Aberdeen University

Professor Karl Leydecker

Senior Vice Principal 

Aberdeen University

26 November 2023


Dear Karl

It has been a few years since we saw each other last when I left the University of Kent in the summer of 2007 to become professor of German in Swansea shortly after you arrived to head up the School of European Culture and Languages. That same summer you were promoted to become Kent’s first executive dean of the Faculty of Humanities, a post which replaced that of non-executive dean which up to that point had been elected by popular staff ballot. If I remember rightly, now following your career from afar, you became professor of German shortly thereafter. Your areas of expertise were Naturalism and the Weimar Republic and at Kent we both taught Comparative Literature. We first met as fellow postgraduates at a conference at Galway in 1990.

In the last sixteen years I have carried on ploughing similar furrows, teaching at BA and MA, some German always, but branching out into neighbouring areas, such as Literature, Media, even Creative Writing. And of course writing for publication and REF and supervising PhDs. Currently I am back to covering Business German and running exams as Swansea tries to rebuild after staff losses and a period of financial stringency. My priority is to keep German and the partner languages going because I know what benefits studying them can bring to young people. In Brexit Britain that is truer than ever and the challenges we and the students face — with travel, exchanges, financing the year abroad and recruiting native-speaker language staff — grow and grow.

I have often heard it said that to promote our subject in our institutions we linguists need to put ourselves forward for roles in university management, running schools and faculties, becoming pro-vice chancellors, presidents and principals. I realised that my skill set did not equip me to take that route but I have taken advocacy roles instead, for example, with the University Council of Modern Languages (UCML) and with the Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU), which was set up to promote SIVs (strategically important but vulnerable subjects), and I have worked with the German Embassy and its Think German networks which link up schools and colleges with universities and third-sector organisations.

One colleague in Modern Languages who exemplified the former strategy was Colin Riordan — Uwe Johnson scholar, co-founder of the Swansea Centre for Contemporary German Literature, and until this autumn vice-chancellor at Cardiff, where he used his position to maximise opportunities for the study of modern languages, investing in posts and infrastructure, taking strategic initiatives and attracting national resources to Cardiff. Colin was generous with his time and advice to the profession nationally, and, I believe, to you as well. 

After Colin’s retirement you are the UK’s most senior Germanist by institutional role, which is why I am so surprised to hear that your current university of Aberdeen is proposing to withdraw programmes in our shared subject.  In 2005 when you arrived at Kent to lead a school which included four European languages some were whispering to you that one or more should be discontinued. You surprised these cynics by backing French, German, Italian and Spanish and explaining loudly why students needed to be taught not just language skills, but literature and culture modules. The arguments for their continuation now at Aberdeen are surely the same as in 2005 at Kent when your eloquence was forceful. 

From the open letter by Peter Davies and Ingrid Sharp to the Aberdeen Principal, I know that you are aware of the argument that the withdrawal of modern languages from your university creates a ‘cold spot’ in those parts of Scotland north of the Central Belt. But their withdrawal would do a disservice to the community of students at Aberdeen too. Many Scottish students have not yet visited England, let alone countries the other side of the North Sea and the English Channel. When degrees in German and French disappear, Germany and France cease to be reference points for future generations who will not have the experience of studying alongside peers who take a year abroad or meeting students from those countries on Erasmus exchanges. Our European neighbours then risk becoming ‘dark spots’ for Scotland’s next generations.

My puzzlement is genuine. When we worked together, you were a passionate champion of the European languages. You have now put your name to proposals which include their removal from one of the UK’s oldest higher education institutions which has a proud record in Modern Languages teaching and researching.

What gives?

I urge you to reconsider and to work with the talented and dedicated staff in the European languages at Aberdeen to forge a sustainable future for the benefit of current and future generations who study with you.

Warmest wishes

Julian Preece


For information on the situation at Aberdeen, see: