Students fight to save Cambridge Modern Greek department

Gwen Jing - News Editor 6 December 2012

A student-led petition was launched on Monday calling for the University of Cambridge to scrap plans of suspending the Modern Greek course due to funding issues.

Unless additional external funding can be found by the end of this academic year, the retirement of the current Lewis-Gibson lecturer for Modern Greek, Professor David Holton, in September 2013 will signify an end of the Modern Greek course since it will be unlikely that his lectureship, the only permanent teaching post in the department, can be funded and refilled by the Medieval and Modern Language (MML) Faculty.

The online petition against the proposed suspension, which has already reached 2,054 signed supporters, is directed to the School of Arts and Humanities, urging the Head “in the strongest possible terms” to “reconsider their projected suspension of Modern Greek as a degree subject.”

“If the proposed changes go ahead, no student will emerge from Cambridge with any more than a cursory knowledge of Modern Greek language and culture”, the petition warns.

Leading the petition is Semele Assinder, a PhD student in Modern Greek at Cambridge and currently based in Greece at the British School of Athens. She told TCS in an interview: “It’s really important that people are made aware of this. It’s more important than ever, with the Euro crisis, that Cambridge is training people in a language and culture so crucial to our existence within Europe.”

Professor David Holton says of the petition that, although “their motivation is admirable”, it must be acknowledged that “the villain of the piece is not the University of Cambridge, or the School of Arts and Humanities, or the MML Faculty, but the global financial crisis.”

The MML Faculty has suspended intake of new undergraduates for Modern Greek since 2009, when it became apparent that the department’s funds from the original £600,000 endowment were no longer able to cover the full running costs. The decision was taken at that time, when the Faculty was forced to make severe cuts, not to replace the Lewis-Gibson lectureship after the retirement of its current holder.

In 2009, the Faculty launched a fundraising campaign aiming to raise in between £2.2-£4 million to cover two lectureship posts, “hopeful at the time that benefactors could be found to supplement the existing modest endowment”, according to Professor Holton. However, largely due to the poor economic circumstances and in Greece in particular, it was unsuccessful in obtaining enough benefactors to guarantee a secure future for the Modern Greek department.

At the heart of the funding problems for Modern Greek is the small size of the course, meaning that tuition fees are not sufficient to cover the costs and leaving external funding as the only option. The number of students who choose the Modern Greek option are low at around 4-6 every year, relative to those choosing other European languages such as French (around 120 a year) or Spanish (around 80 per year).

Greek is spoken by 13 million people today and has a history of being studied at Cambridge for 75 years. Cambridge is one of only three universities in the UK which offers a full undergraduate degree course with a specialisation in Modern Greek; the other two being Oxford and King’s College London (KCL).

Semele remains optimistic about the petition. “The department at KCL faced similar risks of closing down a few years ago, but a massive petition and media push managed to save it”, she cites as an inspiration.

Meanwhile, Professor Holton told TCS: “the Faculty continues to work with the University Development Office with the aim of securing at least a language teaching post as a basis for maintaining the subject, while fundraising efforts continue.”

“We have certainly not given up!”, he adds.

Gwen Jing – News Editor