Language Learning at the Marketised University, or: Libraries do not generate income, that’s why they have to go

The University of Oxford likes to see itself as being world leading and open to the world at the same time: “The University of Oxford is among the world’s most international higher education institutions. Oxford has benefited from its world-class international staff, large numbers of excellent international students and engagement with international research programmes. International university rankings have consistently rated the University highly for its international outlook and engagement in recent years, reflecting the continuing internationalisation of its education and research.”[1]

It prides itself in being “at the forefront in studying topics of worldwide interest, from the dawn of the universe to the challenges of globalisation”, its academics having “built untold numbers of research collaborations with international partners”. It “aims to deliver an exceptional education, to carry out world-leading research, and to make significant contributions to society – locally, nationally, and internationally” by “developing extensive and ever-expanding global links”.[2]

(Just a few quick quotes from the University website. It’s a heaven for HE PR phrase aficionados, I recommend a round of blurb bingo there…)

A wide range of services and resources are available to students and staff to support them in achieving all that international excellence. This includes the Language Centre with a mission statement to provide “resources and services for members of the University who make use of foreign languages for their study, research or personal interest” and offer “English courses such as academic writing and English for social and academic purposes for international students and staff”.[3] After all, in a truly international environment with global aspirations, language skills are key, and language learning is high up on the agenda.

But only until it costs money.

The University’s commitment to international outlook and engagement ends where it comes to funding the Language Centre. In its £2.237 billion budget (2017-18), the University can’t find money for an urgently needed refurbishment of the building on Woodstock Road (let alone an extension!), or for new classroom equipment.
On the contrary: the grant the centre receives towards its running costs has been cut by more than 10% for 2018-19. Savings of £52k per annum have to be made, and of course, the rationale behind it all is that the Language Centre should fund itself by creating more income.

(“Providing resources” for its staff and students’ foreign language learning clearly not means providing them for free.)

So, where to find £52k per year, and more space for income generation?

Yes! The library! After all, this is “an area which does not generate income for the Centre, as use of the library facilities is free to all members of the University”.[4]


Beautiful. Just think about it: All the money that goes into the Language Centre library, and the space it occupies (not generating income), could be used for more classes (generating some income). And not just ANY class, for any student or staff member who just wants to brush up on their Italian, or learn Japanese for their next research project, the cheap way – £100 per term/ 6 2hour classes), no: Academic English is the thing, especially those lucrative Pre-Sessional Intensive courses (6 weeks, £3250), or IELTS summer courses (4 weeks, £1850).

(Let’s fleece those international students, why leave it all to the private language schools. INCOME!)

Ideally, the savings from the library can also be used to improve the classroom AV equipment. We really need touchscreen boards that actually work – otherwise it will become difficult to achieve classroom external rental income targets. But we didn’t win that bid for new equipment we put in to the University. Bugger.

Ok, now we need to find reasons why we actually don’t need the Library (other than ‘does not generate income’, that won’t sell very well). Could be tricky.

After all, the Language Centre library collection has developed over 40 years, with qualified, specialist librarians tailoring acquisitions around University students and staff’s language learning needs. It now offers a wide range of materials – from textbooks and dictionaries, via films and audio resources, to newspapers, magazines, readers and graphic novels – in 203 languages.

Not only does it provide textbooks and reference materials to learners at Language Centre classes, it also offers resources and expert advice for those who would like to learn independently in their own time, or study one of the many languages not taught at the centre. Books and DVDs are on the shelf to browse, and specialised staff is available to advise on suitable learning materials and strategies.
Furthermore, the library offers a space for informal language learning and teaching, especially for 1-2-1 tandem learning and practicing languages in small groups, and hosts additional facilities like the Tutors, Translators and Proof-readers database, which are in demand from individuals and departments across the University.

Indeed, the Oxford Language Centre library with its long tradition as a hub for language learning and its unrivaled breadth of resources[5] has been cited by the Russell Group as a model for enhancing undergraduate and postgraduate students’ language skills.
These resources increasingly include web-based materials, such as an impressive collection of foreign newspaper articles on WebLearn, expertly curated to support modern languages student in preparing for their Finals – an initiative by the Language Centre Librarian which was awarded an OxTalent Award for learning support and outreach to students

It is difficult to measure the impact a library has in someone’s life: it can be helping students of language degrees get better grades by providing them with extra materials that are unique to the collection, like graphic novel for French finalists. Or supporting students of any subject in acquiring or improving their language skills, thus broadening their education and equipping them for international careers. It can be about offering more materials to borrow and for longer for students with disabilities, or about providing class textbooks for the less privileged students who undertake courses at the centre.
The impact can also be for members of staff: from NHS staff to the field researcher, university employees across all divisions and departments use the library to prepare for field trips and academic visits, or to be able to better communicate and collaborate in international projects.
UNIQ students can use the library, it hosts visitors on Open Days, and school and university librarians learn about language learning resources. There is an enormous potential for the library to engage with schools in Oxford and beyond, and to promote language learning in the wider community.

Not least, the library holds materials in many indigenous and heritage languages, pidgins and creoles, and even endangered languages – helping to preserve language diversity for the future.

This all means impact, but not INCOME.

We REALLY do need to find some reasons why that library has to go.

  • Everything is online these days.
    All those dictionaries, foreign language newspapers, journals and film – just a google search away. Experts who curate resources and provide guidance on quality learning materials for a variety of learning strategies? Paywalls? Subscriptions? Copyright issues? …Erm… Textbooks that can be borrowed from the library for classes and for self-study? …Uhm…
    (Maybe we can have that within our Virtual Learning Environment then. Access for (paying) course participants only, and conveniently, we’ll only need to think material in the 12 languages we teach.)
  • Yeah, but no-one is really using physical libraries anymore. Books on shelves, desks, computers – so 20th century!
    What? The official statistics show that annual library use remains at a historic high and in 2017-18 was about 75% higher than it was in 2012? And the use of those old fashioned printed materials has increased from 2772 borrowing ‘transactions’ in 2013-14 to 3767 in 2017-18? Oh come on, we have to find other statistics then. What if we look at how many new people register as users of the library? Ah, there it is, our 28% decline from 2013-14 to 2017-18 (let’s not look at the number of all existing readers). And there is some decline in in the use of CDs, CD ROMs and DVDs. Clearly that is proof that the whole library is obsolete.
  • It is a small library, with only one full-time member of staff (the Language Centre Librarian), and two term-time only Evening Library Assistants
    But we like to compare its opening hours, the number of loans, and other ‘performance indicators’ to those of much bigger libraries. The Sackler Library, for example, recorded 26,288 loans in 2017-18, the Language Centre library only 2,052 loans. We will not do the percentages of how the number of loans relates to the total number of items held at each library (c.55,000 items at the Sackler vs. 13,717 at the Language Centre library) – 15% at the Language Centre library compared to about 8.5% at the Sackler. That would only spoil the narrative.
  • The space is unsuitable.
    The library space needs to be improved: There are problems with heating and ventilation, not enough lamps, problems with noise due to the building layout opening the library to teaching and office spaces. Disabled access is difficult because there is no elevator going up to the 2nd floor, and although some workarounds have been found (library staff will deliver materials to the ground floor), this is far from ideal. The Librarian has pointed this out year after year, but nothing happened. Similarly, there has been no investment in improving the shelving system, or updating furniture and other equipment.
    But, you know what? We can now use it as an argument why we need to close the library. The equipment and décor is outdated, the space doesn’t work. Hah! Close it. (Or even better, use it as an office space. Staff don’t need heating or lighting or lifts.)
  • Other University Language Centres have already closed their libraries.
    It’s a trend. We can’t miss a trend. We need to catch up, no, we need to lead!

Now we have clearly made the case that the library is a waste of money and space, we need a plan to shut it down.

  • Get rid of resources.
    Let’s start with taking away library computers on which catalogues can be searched and CDs, CD ROMs and DVDs can be used. The less study spaces are available, the less users will come and work in the library – three spaces are clearly enough. If we stop promoting the library facilities in student inductions, with University staff, and via Social Media, that will keep user statistics down. And budget spending by the librarian needs to be stopped. Urgently. Otherwise we can never claim that the collections are outdated and no longer fit for purpose.
  • Get rid of staff.
    As we have established, everything you could possibly wish for when learning a language is on the internet, no curation, induction or advice needed (…Duolingo, anyone?). Other things, like buying the right, up-to-date textbooks, monitoring copyright compliance or supporting the 1:1 language exchange, can be done by admin staff (we have already started to adjust their job descriptions accordingly). We don’t need expensive specialist librarians, especially not if any new acquisitions will be limited to textbooks and other materials requested by tutors for course use anyway (191 less languages to waste money on). If library staff see their resources taken away, surely they will be susceptible to a voluntary severance offer, and leave before we have to go through a complicated compulsory redundancy process?
  • Do so as quickly and as quietly as possibly.
    Announce in February that the library will close at the end of June. No, no, no … not announce anything – just vaguely mention “language library proposals”, if need be.[6] Drip-feed carefully curated information, if anyone insists on being consulted briefed. Do not mention to too many people the actual closure date, or that staff redundancies and spending cuts for resources are involved. Language Centre students are best emailed, and asked for their comments, a couple of days before the Easter vacations begin, that’s a good time to grab their attention. Let’s not ask any library users who are not enrolled in classes. Let’s not approach the Student Union for consultation. Let’s wait with providing more comprehensive background information for the ‘consultation’ until we are half into the proposed consultation period. If we are lucky, the library is closed before anyone notices.
  • If anyone asks: it’s all definitely necessary, and probably even an improvement of library facilities (of some sorts).
    The materials that aren’t kept at the Language Centre for use by course tutors only, or considered ‘unwanted’ and donated to charity, will be redistributed to other University libraries or placed in the Bodleian’s Books Storage Facility at Swindon. This is actually totally great, because Bodleian Libraries reading rooms have longer opening hours and better disabled access. (We are only ever thinking about the library users).
    What? There won’t be a specialist librarian to curate the collection and provide language learning advice, inductions, and readers support? No open-shelf browsing? No borrowing of materials held in closed stacks (i.e. at Swindon)? No more new acquisitions other than for course tutors’ use?
    Ah, come on! That’s a small price to pay for our much needed INCOME!

Gosh. Thinking like a marketised university is really exhausting. £££ signs were flickering before my eyes for a moment, and I felt a bit dizzy. But then it went back to just hurting my brain, it’s just too incomprehensible:

  • If the University of Oxford really can’t afford to fund the Language Centre in a way it can maintain and develop integral facilities such as adequate working spaces for staff, fully equipped classrooms AND a language learning library (it hard to believe that £52,000 can’t be found in the £2.237 billion (2017-18) budget. Or maybe it’s just about priorities?), why hasn’t external funding been sought?
  • Why does the business plan propose to dismantle a unique library collection, and to make specialist staff redundant, within a matter of months, hardly allowing for the plan to be discussed by all stakeholders, and for alternatives to library closure to be fully explored?
  • Why was the end date of the risk-of-redundancy consultation, and for the voluntary severance offer to staff affected by potential redundancies (17 May) originally set before the end date of the wider consultation about the library plans (31 May)?
  • Why was comprehensive information on the Language Centre library proposals only made widely available on 10 April 2019 – SEVEN weeks into (…or halfway through…) the ‘consultation period’? How were Language Centre students, university staff, college librarians… supposed to comment on the closure plans, when only vague announcements and 1-page ‘briefing papers’ were available to them?

Many questions, not enough answers.
University of Oxford, you can do better!

Find out what Oxford UCU is doing to Save the Language Centre Library,
how the official consultation is going,
and how you can get involved.

Sign the online petition to Save the Language Centre Library


[4] The Language Centre: business case for restructuring the library,
as sent to Oxford UCU on 05.02.2019.
[5] The number of languages covered by the library’s collections (203) is the highest for independent and class-based learning in a UK university language centre.
For the ultimate comparison: Cambridge University Language Centre covers 180 languages (Sorry, Cambridge – We’ll give you that boat thing though.)


1 thought on “Language Learning at the Marketised University, or: Libraries do not generate income, that’s why they have to go

  1. Pingback: How tow to get involved: Save the Language Centre Library! – Oxford UCU Blog

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