Novelists including Mark Haddon this week accused the government of “baseless prejudice” against the humanities as they made an impassioned plea for universities not to ditch their English degrees despite a slump in applications.
By the January application deadline this year, 7,045 18-year-olds in the UK had applied to study English at university, a fall of more than a third from 10,740 in 2012, according to data from the admissions service Ucas. Experts say this is because far fewer students are now studying English at A-level. Over the same period there has been a boom in applications for subjects such as computer science, psychology and maths.
Staff at Cumbria University were told on 27 May that it would no longer take the students who had applied to start its English degree in September, owing to low numbers. The course website promises that students can explore literature in the Lake District setting that inspired William Wordsworth, Arthur Ransome and Beatrix Potter, “a landscape which has been a source of inspiration to generations of poets and writers”. Its Ambleside location makes it the “only university campus in the UK located in a Unesco world heritage site”, the site says. Staff were told the university would help the candidates to find alternative English courses elsewhere.
This month academics at Leicester University went on strike to oppose cuts to English jobs, and last summer Portsmouth University axed more than half its English department. With applications to study English declining further each year, academics fear more cuts will follow.
Haddon, whose novels include the multi-award-winning The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, said the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, was “clearly driven by an utterly baseless prejudice in favour of Stem [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] subjects and against the humanities”.
Williamson enraged many academics in the arts and humanities when he said in a speech in February that universities must focus on technical courses and filling gaps in the labour market “instead of pushing young people on to dead-end courses that give them nothing but a mountain of debt”.
Haddon, who studied English at Oxford, said Britain was “already poorer” for the decline in English degrees. “English is about history, it’s about psychology, it’s about philosophy, languages, sociology, theology. It’s about what makes us human,” he said.
Despite arguing that English has a value that goes beyond money, he feels the government has ignored research from the British Academy 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 science graduates than any other disciplines.
Haddon said: “You don’t need to declare English as a special case on account of some nebulous, impractical, spiritually improving quality which business-oriented politicians are too coarse to comprehend. It is a great degree on its own terms.”
Patrick Gale, the author of 19 novels and the Emmy-award-winning BBC drama Man in an Orange Shirt, also leaped to the subject’s defence. “English fosters our understanding of one another,” he said. “If more members of the current cabinet had English literature degrees, you can be sure they wouldn’t be cutting our overseas aid budget or so radically undervaluing the importance of investing in children whose education has been disrupted by the pandemic.”
Dame Marina Warner, the novelist and historian, said English degrees offered a “vast and rich repository of knowledge, insights and experience across time”.
She argued that understanding how people used language to influence others was more important than ever in an age of social media and disinformation. “Shakespeare’s Iago will teach you a lot about lying and persuasion and being turned around, misled, deceived by someone’s talk,” she said.
English academics say much of the decline in applications to study the subject is driven by a matching slump in numbers doing English A-level. In 2012, English was the most popular A-level, with 90,000 students taking it. But in recent years numbers have plummeted. This summer 57,000 students will be taking English A-level, according to Ofqual’s latest figures – a decrease of a third since 2012.
David Duff, the chair of the English Association and professor of romanticism at Queen Mary, University of London, said: “English is not dying out. It’s still the fourth most popular A-level and it still attracts some of the brightest students. But that is definitely a challenging statistic.”
The English Association and others have been analysing what has gone wrong. Although there may be factors such as parental influence at play, they think the former education secretary Michael Gove’s radical changes to the English GCSE curriculum in 2017, part of sweeping changes designed to make exams more challenging, have done the most harm. Duff said: “Our research shows that the English language GCSE has been more problematic in putting young people off doing an A-level in English than any other factor.”
Duff also said the government’s “disproportionate support for Stem, at the expense of other subjects”, had been deeply unhelpful. “They are fostering this reductive narrative that you can measure the value of education with a calculator. The rhetoric from the government is all about Stem. But why does it have to be either-or? I took two maths A-levels and English and I loved them all.”
Alex Thomson, the head of the English literature department at the University of Edinburgh and chair of the University English umbrella group, said the government’s decision to decouple AS and A-levels – so that a year doing AS no longer counts as half an A-level – had also hit English hard. “It used to be the case that when students took AS-level English, a lot of them carried on and did A-level English because they loved it most,” he said.
Andrew Miller, the author of popular historical novels including Pure, said he was “delighted” that his daughter was about to start an English literature A-level and expected her to thrive as a result. “Stem subjects are vitally important, but the humanities are, if not the actual heart of a serious university, at least one of its ventricles. You can survive, I believe, with a single ventricle, but only just. You will not be well.”
Jo Grady, the general secretary of the University and College Union, which has been fighting the cuts, said: “If the government continues down this track, we could be seeing one of the biggest attacks on the arts and humanities in English universities in living memory. If courses close, current and future students lose out, and brilliant academic teaching staff risk being laid off.”
Cumbria’s vice-chancellor, Prof Julie Mennell, said that while the university had “reluctantly suspended recruitment” to English for this September due to low student demand, it was working on new options in the field of literary studies for future years, such as environmental writing. “In an area of such rich literary heritage, we are absolutely committed to ensuring we maintain an offer for a whole range of students, young and old, to study English literature,” she said.
Prof Henrietta O’Connor, the head of the University of Leicester’s college of social science, arts and humanities, said: “In line with other universities across the UK, we have seen a drop in student demand for English and have not been able to ignore this issue.
“Our English degree programme offers students the opportunity to study literature from the medieval through to the contemporary period; however, it is essential that we can manage our resources and activity efficiently and effectively.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “Our manifesto commitment is to drive up standards for all students, no matter what they study. High-quality provision in a range of subjects, including English, is critical for our workforce, our public services and is culturally enriching for our society.
“Progression is the key to our reforms and we have been clear that this is not measured on how much graduates go on to earn.”