Award-winning author Philip Pullman has warned that the study of literature “should not be a luxury for a wealthy minority of spoilt and privileged aesthetes” after it emerged that Sheffield Hallam University is to pull its English literature degree from next year.
He was one of a number of writers to raise concerns about the university’s decision to stop teaching the standalone degree and incorporate it instead into a broad-based English degree, a year after the University of Cumbria was forced to take similar action.
A Sheffield Hallam spokesperson confirmed that English literature was among a small number of its courses that are being either suspended or closed, largely due to demand, but said the changes would not involve job losses.
Pullman told the Guardian: “The study of literature should not be a luxury for a wealthy minority of spoilt and privileged aesthetes, but a spring of precious truth and life that every one of us is entitled to.”
A number of universities have made cuts to arts and humanities provision after a government crackdown on what ministers regard as “low value” courses.
Under proposed new rules under consultation, universities could face penalties if fewer than 75% of undergraduates complete their courses and fewer than 60% are in professional jobs or studying for a further degree within 15 months of graduating. Around 70% of graduates of Sheffield Hallam’s English literature degree currently gain graduate jobs.
Pullman said: “Without literature, without music and art and dance and drama, people young and old alike will perish of mental and emotional and imaginative starvation. We really do have a government of barbarians.”
The vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam, Chris Husbands, cautioned against conflating the changes at his university with a broader national concern about the government’s attitude to the arts and humanities, warning: “We distract from the debate on the importance of the arts if we don’t review and re-energise our humanities offerings.”
James Graham, writer of the critically acclaimed TV series Sherwood, who did a drama degree at Hull, saw it as part of a trend, with arts and creative subjects slowly disappearing not just from higher education, but from primary and secondary schools as well.
“It’s just deeply depressing that one of the great British success stories of the last few years – the arts and entertainment industry – is going to be systemically weakened and diminished because it is being eradicated from education in the UK.”
Sarah Perry, the bestselling author of Melmoth and The Essex Serpent, said: “I suspect this is only the latest symptom in the disease creeping across education at all levels, in which learning has been stripped of everything but the most utilitarian aims, designed to form minds into nothing but cogs in the capitalist machine. It’s dismal and dehumanising, and I’m afraid its effects will be far-reaching.”
Sarah Hall, author and professor of practice at the University of Cumbria, said: “It’s awful, absolutely awful. I wish it wasn’t happening.” She said the loss of the English literature BA course at Cumbria had been “traumatic”, but said the university had been forced to come up with exciting alternatives. “There are different ways of thinking about things and old university and education models sometimes do need a bit of refreshing.”
In recent years universities have experienced a slump in applications for humanities courses. According to the universities admissions service, Ucas, acceptances for English studies, including English literature, decreased from 9,480 in 2012 to 6,435 in 2021.
Sheffield Hallam said arts and humanities remained a vital part of the university and added that from 2023 it would be offering English literature as part of a broad-based English degree, taking in language, literature and creative writing.
Jo Grady, the general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU, said: “The decision by Sheffield Hallam to shut down its English literature course is as shocking as it is depressing, but seems part of a wider agenda being forced on universities by the government against the arts and humanities.”
Michelle Donelan, the minister for higher and further education, said the government recognised that all subjects, including the arts and humanities, can lead to positive student outcomes.
But she added: “Courses that do not lead students on to work or further study fail both the students who pour their time and effort in, and the taxpayer, who picks up a substantial portion of the cost.”