Education: We need a Kyrgyz speaker - now: These days, obscure languages become essential overnight. Donald MacLeod reports on threatened cutbacks at the School of African and Oriental Studies

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ONE just never knows these days when a grasp of Uzbek might come in handy. For decades the peoples of Central Asia remained shrouded in decent obscurity until the collapse of Soviet power pushed them into the limelight. Suddenly everyone, from Nato and Foreign Office mandarins to tourist agencies and hopeful entrepreneurs, needs to know something about Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and all those other republics.

Shirin Akiner, of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), is the person who can help. As so often in the past, apparently obscure scholarship nurtured at the school has come into its own.

'I'm trying to do about four jobs at the moment,' says Dr Akiner. With 20 years' experience of the region's culture and languages - Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Kara-Kalpak and Turkmen - she feels it is vital for Britain to get to know this part of the world. 'In an area of instability a country with expertise has an awful lot to offer and something to gain - expertise is generally paid for,' she says.

Yet, according to the rules of the new Higher Education Funding Council, Dr Akiner - like many of her colleagues - should be sacked tomorrow. She does not have enough students to be cost effective; Central Asian studies do not attract impressive research contracts.

Soas, part of London University, teaches 36 languages, from Amharic and Avestan to Yoruba and Zulu, but does not fit the new funding formula devised for the university system, which is based on student numbers and research ratings.

Until now, two-thirds of the school's revenue from the funding council has come from 'special factor' funding, which recognised its unique role. This is to be withdrawn - a warning cut was made this year - with the result that the school is, in the words of its director, Michael McWilliam, facing 'doomsday'.

'Soas is the academic equivalent of the Brazilian rainforest, a national gene collection of rare scholarship,' says Mr McWilliam, former managing director of Standard Chartered Bank. 'You never know when some tree will turn out to contain a rare enzyme that is needed in the pharmaceutical industry, and you never know when certain languages are going to be needed, as in the case of Central Asia.'

This is a place where Japanese students come to learn Indonesian and the lecturer in Vietnamese turns out to be Czech. It is no longer possible, as one member of staff did, to devote oneself to the study of Mon, a dead Burmese language, and to teach a total of a dozen students in an entire academic career. But rare breeds still flourish in this concrete Tower of Babel in the centre of London.

Students of Ancient Near Eastern Studies, for instance, would start with classical Hebrew and Akkadian (Babylonian and Assyrian) in the cuneiform script, and then in the third and fourth years of the course choose from Sumerian, Ugaritic, Hittite, Old Persian, Aramaic, Syriac and epigraphic Old South Arabian or North- west Semitic epigraphy. Those doing African Studies are required to learn either Amharic, Swahili, Hausa, Somali, Yoruba or Zulu, while units are available in Bemba and Sotho.

The costs of having 70 out of 195 staff teaching languages for which the label 'minority' is perhaps putting it kindly, do not endear Soas to the Higher Education Funding Council, as it prepares to distribute tightly limited funds to old and new universities from April 1993. Even the 800,000- item library is more expensive than average to run because it needs staff capable of classifying and searching for books in, say, Thai, Tamil or Turkish.

The funding council is anxious to avoid special cases that smack of cosy deals with the old academic establishment. The polytechnics, now competing as new universities, are already more productive, with student/staff ratios of 15:1 as opposed to 12:1 in the traditional universities. Soas runs popular courses in history, economics, art and archaeology, and religious studies, but its student/staff ratio is still about 7:1.

The school has shed its colonial ethos as a place where officials learnt the languages they would need to run tracts of the Orient or Africa, but its justification remains political rather than academic or consumerist. Its continued existence cannot be guaranteed by student numbers or research ratings.

But if the funding council allows the case for Soas, then why not the case for Celtic Studies or any number of scientific pursuits that might prove useful in time? It would be opening the floodgates.

Small wonder that it has taken months of determined lobbying by Soas to persuade the funding council to acknowledge that it might have a special case and to agree to appoint a working party to investigate. Mr McWilliam believes this has 'breached the walls of Jericho' and has opened up the whole area of minority scholarship, libraries and museums in universities for re-examination.

If the working party looks into national provision of minority languages, then Soas might even turn the crisis to its advantage and acquire more languages from small, unviable university departments. The school might have to lose some classical languages in the ensuing horse-trading, Mr McWilliam admits. Sanskrit, for instance? That would be going too far, he feels. Sanskrit is, after all, the basis of so much in the religion and culture of India. But the case for Hittite and 'a whole bunch of hieroglyph-strewn languages' is less compelling.

Mr McWilliam has withdrawn a proposal to close the Department of Phonetics and Linguistics in the wake of an international outcry among scholars. But Soas is looking at a projected pounds 600,000 deficit and will have to take drastic action, even if the funding council makes it a special case.

Student numbers have risen 50 per cent in the past three years and the school has doubled its income from research contracts. Further expansion is planned. The unhurried days devoted to dead languages are over - as Dr Akiner can confirm.

(Photograph omitted)