A university has suspended its English literature course, after a Government crackdown on perceived “low value” degrees.
Sheffield Hallam University said that the core humanities subject is among the courses that will be suspended for the 2023/24 academic year, but did not clarify the reason behind the decision or say how long the suspension would last.
Dr Mary Peace, an English literature lecturer at the university, told The Telegraph that staff were informed of the decision five minutes before a departmental away day.
She said that she believes the rationale behind the decision was “largely economic”, and suggested that the decision was made over a poor job return for graduates amid expectations of students being in a “highly-skilled” job within six months.
“Humanities students either take a long time to get into conventional jobs or never reach the threshold where they have to pay back their loans – particularly those from less privileged 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 from what are perceived to be low-quality courses.
Vice-chancellors will be warned by the Office for Students (OfS) that they risk being hit with sanctions – including financial penalties – if their degrees fail to deliver for students.
Degrees with high drop-out rates and low rates of graduate employment will be targeted by the OfS for scrutiny.
Sheffield Hallam ranks as number 84 in the Complete University Guide’s latest subject league table for English.
The university’s website says students on its BA English Literature course will “explore how and why literature matters… immersing [themselves] in the texts, ideas and discussions that shape our world.”
Dr Peace said that she was told the university would instead offer an “English Studies” degree, comprising a mix of literature, creative writing and language, but she said that the decision appears to display “a very short-sighted understanding of what is valuable in a society”.
“That will stay because it recruits mainly people who go on to do the [teaching qualification PGCE]…if you go onto a further course in higher education beyond your degree that counts as highly-skilled, it doesn’t add to your tally of people who haven’t gone into jobs after six months”.
However, in suspending its English literature degree course it has become one of the first UK universities to abandon the core subject.
In 2021, the University of Cumbria also suspended its undergraduate English literature degree, owing to “low student demand”.
Last year saw applications to study English at university fall by more than a third from 2012, according to the admissions service UCAS.
The number of students choosing to take an English literature A-Level has also declined in recent years, with Ofqual’s data showing that 32,910 students enrolled in the subject in 2022, compared with 36,135 in 2021.
However, academics and students expressed dismay over Sheffield Hallam’s decision to suspend the subject. Dr Peace said: “I feel sad for the degree, I feel sad for the extremely highly-qualified and talented colleagues I have who are increasingly being used to supervise people finding work placements in Sheffield.
“Humanities is… 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 interpretation of texts and reading in context, “seem vital to me for navigating and being successful in our society.”
Former Sheffield Hallam English literature student Simon Spanton said: “So this is depressing. But the general point is even worse – the notion that education is for work not for life is asinine, reductive and, in the end, hugely damaging to society.”
A Sheffield Hallam University spokesperson said: “As a large comprehensive university offering more than 600 undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, we keep our portfolio of courses under constant review to ensure that they align to the latest demands from students and employers.
“A small number of courses are being suspended or closed, which has been communicated to the relevant staff. These changes do not involve job losses.
“We continue to offer a wide range of learning opportunities across many disciplines. Whatever students choose to study at Sheffield Hallam, they will graduate with the confidence and skills to tackle real-world problems, having had the chance to complete work experience in every year of their chosen programme of study.”