The study of literature allows us to glimpse universal truths as well as encounter the diversity of human experience in all its fascinating particularity. With expert guidance, an immersion in great novels, plays and poems can deliver a sense of spiritual headroom and wellbeing which lasts a lifetime. As Walt Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Such benefits – intangible but very real – were sadly not enough to persuade Sheffield Hallam University to continue to offer a standalone English literature degree to undergraduates. Amid falling demand generally for arts and humanities courses, a university spokesperson this week announced that the course was being suspended. The news prompted an outpouring of frustration from lecturers, and criticism from writers such as James Graham and Philip Pullman. It follows a similar move by the University of Cumbria last year and mounting cuts to humanities provision elsewhere. In May, recruitment for all performing arts courses at the University of Wolverhampton was suspended. One lecturer at Sheffield Hallam tweeted despairingly that the humanities were being subjected to “cultural vandalism”.
This depressing trend is part of a wider pattern. The deliberate commercialisation of higher education is steadily reducing the value of a degree to the bottom line of what job and salary it unlocks. As Sheffield Hallam called time on English literature, it emerged that the number of graduates owing more than £100,000 in student loans rose exponentially over the past year. It is understandable that young people from lower-income backgrounds, contemplating a working career shadowed by debt and punitive interest rates, might think twice about taking a non-vocational course. Applications for English studies, including English literature, have fallen steadily since 2012, when the cap on tuition fees was lifted to £9,000. There have also been drop-offs in other humanities subjects.
Anxious that as many graduates as possible pay off their loans – for which the Treasury is ultimately on the hook – the government has focused on the virtues of Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Meanwhile, supposedly “dead end” university courses – those which fail to deliver an instant graduate premium in the job market – are coming under increasingly aggressive scrutiny. This year, the Office for Students set out plans to remove funding for “low quality” courses, defined as those where less than 60% of participants go into good jobs or further study soon after graduating. The strategic goal appears to be to bully non-Russell Group institutions down a more vocational route.
The overall approach is both wrong-headed and shortsighted. As Mr Graham points out, the arts and entertainment industry has become one of the few booming areas of the economy in which Britain can claim to be world-leading. Narrowing the humanities talent pool to a privileged subset of students will, in this sense, be self-defeating. More fundamentally, it will radically shrink the cultural horizons and options of those outside that elite group.
After a decade of marketisation, a grimly utilitarian worldview is beginning to exercise a suffocating chokehold over much of England’s higher education sector. But the intrinsic quality and worth of a course cannot be fairly judged by reference to employment statistics and labour market outcomes. Sheffield Hallam’s decision must be a wake-up call for those concerned to preserve the future of the arts and humanities in our universities.