By Alana McDermott
Last week, Sheffield Hallam University announced that it was to drop its English Literature degree, with the university’s English Literature professor Dr Mary Peace citing that the reasons behind the cut were “largely economic”. The decision comes after new government guidelines mean that universities could face penalties if fewer than 40% of graduates go on to “highly skilled” jobs within 6 months.
With English Literature being the ‘least valuable’ degree of 2022, it may come as no surprise that the government cuts to these so-called “Mickey Mouse” degrees will mainly target the arts and humanities, meaning many people won’t be able to access them at all.
This sets a dangerous and problematic precedence for our youth, hungry for knowledge and full of passions, many will see their opportunities narrowed with the options of certain degrees being completely removed, but the concern doesn’t stop there.
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Working class students who don’t attend Russell Group universities will be the first to suffer under this culling of degrees because the majority of non-Russell Group universities do not have the privilege of being funded by private and third-party sectors. This means that universities that rely heavily on government funding will see their arts and humanities courses dwindle, reducing the opportunities of working-class students to pursue their passions and interests. Richer graduates at Russell Group universities are more likely to be able to find jobs through nepotism than those of poorer backgrounds, and this creates a bigger class divide within universities and separating who can study what.
This decision will lead to more exclusive universities gatekeeping these subjects for a wealthy minority, rather than the arts being an entitlement for all who want to study it. Author Philip Pullman told The Guardian that “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.”. Subjects like art, media, drama, literature and dance are most threatened, and many students will be unable to pursue creative degrees at all.
Those of us who have studied English Literature at undergraduate level (such as myself) know that it is so much more than simply reading or commenting on books. English Literature is a gateway to so many different subjects, including anthropology, politics, philosophy, fine art, psychology, history and critical race theory. It teaches vital critical thinking skills and, in today’s society, helps navigate the difficult wilderness that is the media in general.
This trend of removing creative subjects from universities begs a question of what this says about our society at large. Are we moving away from appreciating the arts and humanities altogether, or is this a means to an end to further remove working class people from exploring passions they love? A student may very well face a decision that they cannot study the creative subjects they desire simply because no universities near them offer those degrees anymore. If more universities follow suit, we may be faced again with the historical phenomenon of the arts being solely studied and filled with a societal elite.
But what defines a “highly skilled” job? You may be an artist, a performer, a journalist, but they wouldn’t count as being highly skilled jobs according to the government simply because most earners in those categories do not end up paying back their student loans. This definition of “highly skilled” actually meaning “profitable” is no doubt questionable at best.
The defences of the decision may make sense if you are looking at it from a purely economic perspective. Some people who have graduated have felt their student loan was wasted, as did one student who sued her university for her lack of job opportunities in an International Business Strategy degree.
The University of Cumbria was the first to cut a standalone degree for English Literature, incorporating it into a broader degree in 2021, and the decision seems to have at least increased application numbers, but the decision still means that prospective students with a passion for Literature may be unhappy and restricted. Sarah Hall, author and professor at the University of Cumbria claimed that “There are different ways of responding to change and old university and education models sometimes benefit from refreshing.”.
It seems a shame, at least, to see valuable subjects being removed from higher education. Without the arts we have no entertainment, so art to enjoy or music to relax to. It is a vital part of our collective intelligence and emotion, without our creative passions, we may as well be robots. More than a shame, however, it is detrimental to the way our society exists. To restrict the arts and humanities to those few who can leave university with a guaranteed job is to restrict people’s freedoms and right to learn for knowledge’s sake.
Reducing passion to profit is shocking and dangerous, and I certainly hope that our Prime Minister, having himself a degree in the Classics, can understand just how depressing it will be for young students to have their interests taken away from them.
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