Novelists call to save English degrees as demand crumbles | English and creative writing

Novelists, including Mark Haddon, this week accused the government of “unfounded prejudice” against the humanities as they passionately pleaded for universities not to give up their English degrees despite a drop in the number of applicants.

As of the application deadline in January this year, 7,045 18-year-olds in the UK had applied to study English at university, down more than a third from 10,740 in 2012, according to data from the Ucas admissions service. Experts say this is because far fewer students are now studying English at A level. During the same period, there has been a boom in applications for subjects such as computer science, psychology and Mathematics.

On May 27, staff at the University of Cumbria were told they would no longer take students who applied to start their English degree in September, due to low student numbers. The course website promises that students can explore literature within the framework of the Lake District that inspired William Wordsworth, Arthur Ransome and Beatrix Potter, “a landscape that has been an inspiration to generations of poets and poets. writers ”. Its location in Ambleside makes it “the UK’s only university campus located within a Unesco World Heritage site,” the site says. Staff have been told that the university will help applicants find alternative English courses elsewhere.

This month, academics at the University of Leicester went on strike to oppose English job cuts, and last summer the University of Portsmouth cut more than half of its department English. With applications to study English declining further each year, academics fear further cuts will follow.

Haddon, whose novels include the award-winning The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, said Education Secretary Gavin Williamson was “clearly motivated by a totally unfounded bias in favor of Stem.” [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] subjects and against the human sciences ”.

Williamson enraged many academics in the arts and humanities when he said in a speech in February that universities should focus on technical courses and fill gaps in the job market “instead of pushing young people into courses. with no way out that only gives them a mountain of debt ”.

The Lake District, “a source of inspiration for generations of poets and writers”, but the University of Cumbria will not welcome undergraduates in English this fall. Photograph: Alamy

Haddon, who studied English at Oxford, said Britain was “already poorer” due to declining degrees in English. “English is history, it is psychology, it is philosophy, languages, sociology, theology. It’s about what makes us human, ”he said.

Although he claims English has a value that goes beyond money, he believes the government has ignored British Academy research showing that humanities graduates are just as employable as scientists and mathematicians. The academy found that of the 10 fastest growing economic sectors, eight employed more arts, humanities and social sciences graduates than any other discipline.

Haddon said: “You don’t need to declare English as a special case due to a nebulous, impractical and spiritually enhanced quality that business-oriented politicians are too crass to understand. This is a great degree in itself.

Patrick Gale, author of 19 novels and the Emmy-winning BBC drama Man in an Orange Shirt, has also spoken up on the issue. “English promotes our mutual understanding,” he said. “If more members of the current cabinet had degrees in English literature, you can be sure that they wouldn’t cut our overseas aid budget or drastically underestimate the importance of investing in children whose education has been disrupted by the pandemic. “

Dame Marina Warner, the novelist and historian, said English degrees provide a “vast and rich repository of knowledge, ideas and experiences through time.”

She argued that understanding how people use language to influence others is more important than ever in the age of social media and disinformation. “Shakespeare’s Iago will teach you a lot about lying and persuading and being turned around, misled, deceived by someone’s speech,” she said.

Marina Warner says studying English is more important than ever in the age of social media.
Marina Warner says studying English is more important than ever in the age of social media. “Shakespeare’s Iago will teach you a lot about lying”. Photograph: Geraint Lewis / Rex

English academics say that much of the drop in applications to study the subject is due to a corresponding drop in the number of graduates in English. In 2012, English was the most popular A level, with 90,000 students taking it. But in recent years the numbers have dropped. This summer, 57,000 students will take the baccalaureate in English, according to the latest figures from Ofqual, a drop of a third since 2012.

David Duff, President of the English Association and Professor of Romanticism at Queen Mary, University of London, said: “English is not extinct. It is still the fourth most popular A-level and it still attracts some of the brightest students. But it is certainly a difficult statistic.

The English Association and others have analyzed what is wrong. While there may be factors such as parental influence at play, they believe that the sweeping changes made by former Education Secretary Michael Gove to the GCSE English curriculum in 2017, which are part sweeping changes designed to make exams more difficult have done the most harm. Duff said: “Our research shows that the GCSE in English has been more problematic in deterring young people from taking an A level in English than any other factor.”

Duff also said that the “government’s disproportionate support for Stem at the expense of other subjects” had been deeply unnecessary. “They promote this reductive narrative that you can measure the value of education with a calculator. The government’s rhetoric is all about Stem. But why does it have to be one or the other? I took two baccalaureate maths and English and loved them all.

Alex Thomson, director of the English literature department at the University of Edinburgh and chairman of the University of English coordinating group, said the government’s decision to separate the AS and A levels – so that a year in AS no longer counts as a half-A-level – English had also hit hard. “Previously, when students took AS level English, a lot of them went on and did A level English because they liked it the most,” he said.

Andrew Miller, author of popular historical novels including Pure, said he was “delighted” his daughter was about to start a bachelor’s degree in English literature and expected her to thrive as a result. . “Stemming subjects are vitally important, but the humanities are, if not the very heart of a serious university, at least one of its ventricles. You can survive, I believe, with one ventricle, but just barely. You are not doing well.

Jo Grady, the secretary general of the University and College Union, who fought the cuts, said: “If the government continues on this path, we could see one of the biggest attacks on the arts and humanities in English universities in Memory life. If classes close, current and future students lose out and the brilliant teaching staff risk being made redundant.

Cumbria’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Julie Mennell said that although the university had “reluctantly suspended recruiting” in English for September due to weak demand for students, it was working on new options in the field of literary studies for the coming years, such as the writing environment. “In a region with such a rich literary heritage, we are absolutely determined to maintain an offer for a whole range of students, young and old, to study English literature,” she said.

Professor Henrietta O’Connor, director of the College of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities at the University of Leicester, said ignore this problem.

“Our English study program offers students the opportunity to study literature from the medieval period to the contemporary period; However, it is essential that we can manage our resources and operations effectively and efficiently.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education said, “Our clear commitment is to raise the standards for all students, no matter what they study. A high-quality offering in a range of subjects, including English, is essential for our workforce, our public services and is culturally enriching for our company.

“Progression is the key to our reforms and we have made it clear that this cannot be measured by the amount graduates earn. “