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Sunday, September 25, 2022

‘It will always have value’: readers on whether English lit is worthwhile | Higher education

News that Sheffield Hallam University is to scrap its standalone English literature degree from next year triggered an outcry this week, after the government’s decision to end funding for degrees where less than 40% of graduates find “highly skilled” employment within six months.

Here, seven English literature graduates tell what they gained from the degree, and share their views on the government’s plan to cut the funding of certain humanities courses deemed “low-value”.

‘I loved studying English at Sheffield Hallam’

Nageena Rehman.
Nageena Rehman: ‘English kept my employment options open’

“I loved studying English literature at Sheffield Hallam University, where I graduated in 2020. It was surprising and disappointing to hear they were closing the course. Being able to study the subject in my home town was such an advantage: I saved money, I felt comfortable on campus, and had the opportunity to study abroad for a year, which changed my life.

“English kept my employment options open. I have worked as a private tutor, a journalist, and am now a stagehand and technician at my local theatre. I gained an understanding of different perspectives, and learned how to articulate my thoughts on paper and in person – a key skill in all of my work. I connected with my coursemates over our passion for reading and writing and we have gone on to work creatively together. My degree has been a fundamental part of growth in my critical thinking, integrity, intelligence and passion for my work.” Nageena Rehman, 24, backstage theatre technician, York

‘The arts can enact change, release emotion and bring joy’

Saffron Rain
Saffron Rain: ‘I do customer service for an arts charity, which doesn’t count as highly skilled work’

“I studied English at Sheffield University and did an MA in the same subject. If anyone were to quantify my university’s success rates based on the current government opinion, I would be bringing the side down. But it depends on what you class as ‘skilled work’. I used to manage bars, but now I do customer service for an arts charity, which doesn’t count as highly skilled work, although it is. I haven’t wasted my time at university.

“I did not undertake either course in order to get a specific job, but to enrich my own life, and hopefully the lives of others. I learned how to research, identify reliable sources, form reasoned opinions, and intelligently engage with arguments I may not agree with. Studying the arts will always have value. They can enact change, provide solace, release emotion and bring joy.” Saffron Rain, 28, customer service professional, Stockport

‘The government’s stance smacks of us-and-them politics’

Jason Jawando
Jason Jawando: ‘I’m a more rounded person’

“I studied English literature as a mature student at the Open University, having previously had a difficult experience of education. My degree gave me the ability to express myself, to engage with culture, and gave me confidence. Although my degree isn’t directly related to my job, I’m a more rounded person with a better understanding of my place in the world.

“The government completely overlooks the role of education for its own sake; that it makes people better citizens. Employability is important, but measuring crudely whether you’re in a high-earning job or not is the wrong approach. It smacks very much of ‘us and them’ politics. The message seems to be: if you’re from a lower socio-economic background, study something useful and we’ll keep you in your place.” Jason Jawando, 50, research support administrator, Wolverhampton

‘Perhaps this policy will make universities offer better value for money’

Emily Young
Emily Young: ‘I learned almost nothing’

“I graduated in 2018 with a £9,000-a-year English degree from a London university. I had about six hours of ‘contact time’ a week that dropped to nothing in my final year during the lecturers’ strikes. I got a first-class degree but I can safely say I learned almost nothing. The content was mostly boring and abstract with little chance to explore my own literary interests.

“I feel strongly that many humanities courses are cash cows for universities’ more expensive practical courses, such as engineering and chemistry. My degree was not much more than an overpriced piece of paper that I needed to enter the job market.

“I think the government’s policy [to cut funding for some humanities courses] is sensible. I hope this forces universities to think more about quality and employability.” Emily, 26, civil servant, London

‘My English studies paved the way to a successful career as an entrepreneur’

Nick Payne.
Nick Payne: ‘I learned a range of useful skills’

“I studied English literature at the University of Sheffield, and graduated with a 2:1. I didn’t end up in a ‘highly skilled’ job within six months, so according to the government my studies were apparently a waste of time.

“I learned a range of useful skills, particularly in communication, research and analysis, which played a significant part in my career. I’ve co-founded and managed a couple of successful businesses in the technical publishing and events sector, sold one of them for a significant sum along the way, and have boosted the UK’s import/export balance over the years as roughly half of our conference delegates come from overseas – and spend money locally.” Nick Payne, 57, majority owner of a business running technical conferences, St Albans

‘It shows that almost none of my software engineering colleagues studied humanities’

James Cole, from Bath, believes humanities degrees equip people with skills other graduates lack.
James Cole: ‘English literature degrees teach criticism … which suits the workplace well’

“English literature degrees teach criticism, a form of analysis that suits the workplace very well. What is the truth in a given situation, how does it tie into wider themes, and how can I best communicate that? Deep reading skills, mental organisation, patience. Studying Stem [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] doesn’t develop these skills in the same way, and I should know because I also have an MPhil in computer science.

“Almost none of my colleagues have humanities degrees, and it shows. A humanities student learns a history of systems, approaches, and theories. They learn how these failed and why. Stem, meanwhile, encourages the view that the world is a system that can be understood and manipulated. And in a practical way this is true – and very cool. But it can also encourage conformity and stifle questioning and innovation.” James Cole, software engineer, Bath

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