English literature: is it doomed?

Arts and humanities courses are under attack thanks to a shift to ‘skills-led’ learning

Shakespeare book open
(Image credit: JannHuizenga/Getty Images)

In all the furore about culture wars, we’re at risk of overlooking the “war on culture” that is being fought “under our noses”, said Alice Crossley on Reaction. More significant than the bickering between Gen Z and boomers is the eroding of arts and humanities subjects at our universities, owing to the prevailing view that “a wealth of knowledge” matters far less than “economic wealth”.

There was an outcry last week when Sheffield Hallam University said it was suspending its English literature course. Yet it was only the latest manifestation of a broader trend in higher education: the University of Roehampton recently cut its arts and humanities courses, in order to focus on what it described as “skills-led” learning with “greater engagement with employers”. And similar plans are said to be afoot at other universities, such as De Montfort, Huddersfield and Wolverhampton.

What are universities for? Some might say that they’re places to learn and grow, to develop the ability to communicate clearly and think critically. But the Government’s take is more “grimly utilitarian”, said The Guardian. Anxious to ensure that as many graduates as possible pay off their loans, it’s boosting funding for Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) while subjecting supposedly “low quality” courses to “increasingly aggressive scrutiny”.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

‘Reserved for the privileged’

Sheffield Hallam has denied that the suspension of its literature degree was in reaction to plans to remove funding from courses that don’t send enough graduates into high-paid work; but by applying “punitive” interest rates to student loans, and so making young people from low-income families think twice before enrolling in non-vocational courses, the Government is choking off arts courses at non-Russell Group universities by other means.

It is making the study of humanities the preserve of “a privileged subset”, and shrinking the “horizons and options” of those outside that elite. This is wrong, and also wrong-headed, at a time when the creative industries are one of Britain’s few growth areas.

‘Doomed regardless of funding’

I fear English literature is doomed regardless of funding issues, said James Marriott in The Times. It has not just become less popular as a degree course; it has slid in the A-level tables too, as its “cultural prestige” has faded.

Once, it was thought that great literature spoke to a “universal humanity”; and to study it was seen as noble and humane. That idea is “crashingly unfashionable” now: the canon is no longer regarded as mankind’s “universal inheritance”, but as a “chauvinist embarrassment”. I love English literature, but its study is destined to become “as marginal as classics or theology”.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.