"Much has been made of the need to modernise many arts and humanities subjects, but debate is so jaded by a preoccupation with its economic value"Julochka / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

At Cambridge, every subject has its associated assumptions and stereotypes. Study maths? You’ve probably heard the word ‘introvert’ or ‘nerd’ echoed around. Study medicine? The idea that you have ‘no social life’ has probably been thrown in your direction more than once.

As an English student, I’ve heard my fair share of this kind of thing — in particular, the teasing remark ‘you’ll never get a job’. Though often responded to with self-effacing admission, this subject-banter is driven by a genuine belief that English as a degree lacks utility and general value. So much so that universities themselves are starting to axe them — Sheffield Hallam made headlines last month for making this very decision.

“Isn’t the aim of attending university to prepare us for a career and a life in the ‘real world’?”

I don’t mind acknowledging that the statistics indicate that English and other arts degrees are less employable than Maths or Medicine. In our current socio-political climate, ‘less employable’ has become synonymous with ‘less valuable’. After all, isn’t the aim of attending university to prepare us for a career and a life in the ‘real world’? There’s certainly some resonance in that. University is often seen as a bridge between school and your career as an adult — but not all degrees leave students with a clearly defined career path.

The absence of a defined direction can prove troublesome — leading to underwhelming rates of employment and a perception that these degrees are subsequently lacking merit and worth. Yet the term ‘low value’ has been problematised in the past few years — associated with ‘menial’ or ‘low-skilled’ jobs and the Conservative government’s post-Brexit point-based immigration criteria. We’re never far from a reminder that our worth is derived from our perceived contribution to the economy and society rather than the inherent fulfilment which we derive from education and our careers.

Sheffield Hallam’s decision follows a patterned decline in uptake of English Literature degrees across the country. However, it seems a combination of cuts to arts sector funding and education, post-Covid consequences on industries such as the theatre, and an increasing anxiety towards the employability of degrees during a cost of living crisis, has led to the axing and undermining of the subject. For Sheffield Hallam, it is their financial position which has influenced the decision — not a distaste for the arts or a dismissal of its value. A threshold of 60% of graduates must go into further study or employment for a degree course to receive government funding, a target which many universities, troubled by high costs and understaffing, simply cannot meet.

It’s not immediately clear how far this has been influenced by the view that arts-related degrees are ‘low-value’. However, Sheffield Hallam is far more accessible than universities like Cambridge, and with other universities such as Roehampton and Wolverhampton undergoing similar changes, access to traditional arts degrees is broadly declining. Removing access to the arts risks reverting them to a discipline for those elite and/or rich enough to afford to go to a university that still offers the degree. As Hannah Fearn points out, ‘what is being policed is not quality but opportunity’.

“English literature teaches the fundamentality of communication”

Yet if you look beyond the headlines, it appears that Hallam aren’t entirely removing the subject from their course list. The university’s website describes a new degree, blending the disciplines of English Language, Literature, and Creative Writing, into a broader ‘English’ degree. So why are so many figures, such as writer Philip Pullman, gravely describing it as ’mental and emotional and imaginative starvation’, mourning the loss of the ‘traditional’ English literature degree? Beyond an affection for the unique and particular study of poetry and prose — and of course reading a degree which correlates with purely educational interests — there’s a sense that those disengaged with the discipline do not recognise the core practice and purpose of an English Literature degree.

It’s not just the acts of reading and writing about books. Through processing a variety of perspectives, synthesising and evaluating information, and learning how to articulate ideas and opinions, English Literature teaches the fundamentality of communication. We grow to understand why people choose to use certain words, and we learn from empathising with the past, present, and future. While perhaps not preparing you for a specific occupation or vocation, the skills it teaches are transferable, and by my view, invaluable. Blended ‘English’ degrees do offer this to a certain extent, but in their breadth, they lose an element of specificity and depth for which the original English Literature degree is lauded.


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But these aspects of the degree are largely overlooked. Much has been made of the need to modernise many arts and humanities subjects, but debate is so jaded by a preoccupation with its economic value. Unfortunately, much of this critical rhetoric stems from the upper echelons in government. Not too long ago, then Education Secretary Gavin Williamson claimed students were ‘starting to pivot away from dead-end courses that leave young people with nothing but debt’, suggesting that students are also moving beyond the idea of learning for the sake of it and now only care about how it will serve them financially.

I don’t buy into this implication, which exacerbates a pre-existing anxiety about the job-market for arts students. An English Literature course is not a ‘dead-end’. In fact, harking back to Hannah Fearn’s comment, its breadth, and transferability invites opportunity, it doesn’t limit it. Neither do other ‘less academic’ arts degrees. There is no ‘right way’ to enter an industry. We need to reframe our thinking and not assume that axing these degrees will make us, as a generation, more employable.