University drops English literature course ‘because graduates struggle to get well-paying jobs’

A university has suspended its English literature course, after a government crackdown on degrees perceived as “low value”.

Sheffield Hallam University said the major subject of humanities was among the courses that will be suspended for the 2023/24 academic year, but did not specify the reason for the decision or specify the length of the suspension.

Dr Mary Peace, a professor of English literature at the university, told the Telegraph that staff were informed of the decision five minutes before a day’s absence from the department.

She said she thought the rationale for the decision was “largely economic” and suggested the decision was made because of poor job returns for graduates when students expected to take up a “highly qualified” job within six months.

“Humanities students take a long time to get into conventional jobs or never reach the threshold where they have to repay their loans – especially those from less advantaged social backgrounds,” Dr Peace said.

Universities are facing a crackdown on so-called ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees as the watchdog threatens to withdraw student loan funding for what are perceived to be shoddy courses.

Vice-chancellors will be warned by the Office for Students (OfS) that they risk facing penalties – including financial penalties – if their degrees are not issued to students.

Degrees with high drop-out rates and low graduate employment rates will be targeted by the OfS for review.

Sheffield Hallam ranks 84th in the latest Complete University Guide subject ranking table for English.

The university’s website says students in its English Literature BA course will “explore how and why literature is important… immersing [themselves] in the texts, ideas and discussions that shape our world.

Dr Peace said she was told the university would instead offer an ‘English studies’ degree, including a mix of literature, creative writing and language, but she said the decision seems display “a very short-sighted understanding of what is valuable in a society”.

“It will stay because it mainly recruits people who will do the [teaching qualification PGCE]… if you pursue further training in higher education beyond your degree which counts as highly skilled, this does not add to your count of people who have not found a job after six months” .

However, by suspending its English Literature course, it became one of the first UK universities to drop the major.

In 2021, the University of Cumbria also suspended its undergraduate degree in English Literature, due to “low demand from students”.

Last year, applications to study English at university fell by more than a third from 2012, according to the UCAS Admissions Service.

The number of students choosing to take an A-Level in English literature has also fallen in recent years, with Ofqual data showing 32,910 students enrolled in the subject in 2022, down from 36,135 in 2021.

However, academics and students have expressed dismay at Sheffield Hallam’s decision to suspend the topic. Dr Peace said: “I’m sad for the degree, I’m sad for my hugely qualified and talented colleagues who are increasingly being used to oversee people who find placements in Sheffield.

“The human sciences are…obviously not part of [the university’s] vision of the future, really.

She added that the skills provided by an English Literature degree, such as interpreting texts and reading in context, “seem to me as vital to navigating and succeeding in our society”.

Former Sheffield Hallam English Literature student Simon Spanton said: ‘So it’s depressing. But the general point is even worse – the idea that education is for work and not for life is stupid, reductive and, ultimately, extremely harmful to society.

A spokesperson for Sheffield Hallam University said: “As a large, comprehensive university offering over 600 undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, we constantly monitor our course portfolio to ensure they match the latest student and employer demands.

“A small number of classes are suspended or closed, which has been communicated to the staff concerned. These changes do not imply job losses.

“We continue to offer a wide range of learning opportunities in many disciplines. Whichever student chooses to study at Sheffield Hallam, they will graduate with the confidence and skills to tackle real-world problems, having had the chance to gain work experience each year of the course of study they have chosen.

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