The Guardian’s view of the arts and humanities: threatened on campus | Editorial


Jhe study of literature allows us to glimpse universal truths as well as to encounter the diversity of human experience in all its fascinating particularity. With expert guidance, an immersion in great novels, plays, and poems can provide a sense of spiritual space and well-being that lasts a lifetime. As Walt Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass: “I am great, I contain multitudes.”

Such benefits – intangible but very real – were unfortunately not enough to persuade Sheffield Hallam University to continue offering a stand-alone English Literature degree to undergraduates. Amid generally declining demand for arts and humanities courses, a spokesperson for the university announced this week that the course was suspended. The news caused an outpouring of frustration from speakers and critics from writers such as James Graham and Philip Pullman. This follows a similar decision by the University of Cumbria last year and growing cuts to humanities provision elsewhere. In May, recruitment for all performing arts courses at the University of Wolverhampton was suspended. A lecturer at Sheffield Hallam tweeted desperately that the human sciences were subject to “cultural vandalism”.

This depressing trend is part of a larger pattern. The deliberate commercialization of higher education routinely reduces the value of a degree based on the job and salary it unlocks. As Sheffield Hallam called time on English literature, it emerged that the number of graduates owing over £100,000 in student loans has risen exponentially over the past year. It’s understandable that young people from low-income backgrounds, contemplating a professional career clouded by debt and punishing interest rates, think twice about taking a non-professional course. Demand for studies in English, including English literature, has fallen steadily since 2012, when the cap on tuition fees was raised to £9,000. There were also declines in other social studies subjects.

Concerned that as many graduates as possible repay their loans – for which the Treasury is ultimately responsible – the government has emphasized the virtues of the stem subjects (sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics). Meanwhile, so-called “dead-end” college courses — those that don’t offer graduates an instant premium in the job market — are coming under increasingly aggressive scrutiny. This year, the Student Union announced plans to cut funding for “low quality” courses, defined as those where less than 60% of participants land a good job or continue their education soon after graduation. The strategic objective seems to be to intimidate non-Russell institutions into a more professional path.

The overall approach is both flawed and short-sighted. As Mr Graham points out, the arts and entertainment industry has become one of the few booming sectors of the economy in which Britain can claim to be the world leader. Reducing the talent pool in the humanities to a privileged subset of students will, in this sense, be counterproductive. More fundamentally, it will drastically narrow the cultural horizons and options of those outside of this elite group.

After a decade of commodification, a grimly utilitarian worldview is beginning to exert a stifling hold over much of the higher education sector in England. But the intrinsic quality and value of a course cannot be fairly judged by reference to employment statistics and labor market outcomes. Sheffield Hallam’s decision should be a wake-up call to those concerned about safeguarding the future of the arts and humanities at our universities.


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