Reports of English studies’ demise have been greatly exaggerated

Undergraduate numbers in English studies may be declining across the UK as a whole. But Sarah Cowan argues that a closer look at the landscape shows resilience – and excellence

Sarah Cowan is Head of Higher Education & Skills Policy at the British Academy

Questioning the value of English studies degrees is not a new phenomenon. For decades, there have been familiar lines of enquiry regarding their relevance and value in an ever-changing world. Yet in recent years these pronouncements have taken on more dramatic forms.

Last summer, news of falling interest in English Literature sparked sensationalist headlines, including “Is this the end for English lit degrees?” and “Graduate jobs target risks killing off English literature degrees.” But, beyond the headlines, what exactly do changes in student numbers mean for teaching and research in English studies? And are things as catastrophic as the headlines make out?

Concerns for the health of English disciplines are not only media fabrications. Course closures and departmental restructures are cause for genuine uncertainty among the community, while headlines, which often decontextualise considered decision-making and debates, add to unease. Yet the English studies community is fighting a complex battle across intersecting issues.

Drawing on over a decade’s worth of data and in-depth analysis, the British Academy’s new report English studies provision in UK higher education shows that tales of English studies’ death have been greatly exaggerated. Indeed, the English studies community makes a demonstrably diverse and profound impact on society.

The numbers game

Perhaps the most startling statistic emerges from longitudinal analysis showing that, since 2012, the number of first-degree undergraduates taking English studies declined by 20 per cent, with a further decline of three per cent between 2019 and 2021. These are the statistics that caused so much alarm last summer.

However, drawing the conclusion that this spells the death of English would be misleading – missing out more granular shifts that impact teaching and learning on the ground.

Firstly, the picture is far from uniform across the whole of the UK. Analysis of the numbers since 2019 shows that while the number of students taking English studies in Northern Ireland, England and Wales continued to fall between 2019 and 2021, the figures for students domiciled in Scotland rose – between 2012 and 2021 the number of first-degree undergraduate students there actually increased by 12 per cent.

This pattern chimes with concerns across the English studies community that changes to the GCSE and A level curricula in England, Northern Ireland and Wales are negatively impacting pipelines into higher education. Many see the over-emphasis on memorisation of quotations and information as curbing creativity and enthusiasm. The National Association for the Teaching of English has also identified governmental pressure on students and schools to increase STEM study at A level as impacting uptake of English studies at A level.

Changes are not consistent across degree levels either. Postgraduate study of English is rising in popularity at both master’s and doctoral levels. There was an increase of 27 per cent in enrolments to English studies postgraduate taught degrees between 2012 and 2019, and 8 per cent between 2019 and 2021.

Growth at the postgraduate level signals a lively research environment and interest in the high-level skills cultivated by English studies disciplines and their graduates. But the affordability of postgraduate study should remain a primary concern – especially when considering higher fee-paying international students.

Excellence across the board

While student trends are complex and nuanced, the verdict on the quality of English studies research is unequivocal – in the most recent Research Excellence Framework, 48 per cent of research activity in English Language and Literature was judged to be 4* (world leading). In addition, every English language and literature department that submitted to REF21’s English language and literature unit of assessment had some 4* research or impact.

This is borne out in the REF21 case studies. Take Shakespeare North, for example, a cultural and educational venue in Prescot. This £35 million partnership project between Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council and Shakespeare North Trust, with Liverpool John Moores University as the lead academic partner, is a local landmark providing economic stimulus and educational resources, while also serving as a community hub. The project team constructed a replica of Inigo Jones’ Cockpit-in-Court theatre, enclosed within a modern building and performance garden, creating the Shakespeare North Playhouse.

Such research excellence – and the stability and strength in generating research income – paints a contrasting picture to recent closures and restructuring of English studies courses. Researchers in English studies should take great pride in their work’s impact and make use of such evidence when defending the value of their departments.

Reframing the argument

The English studies community has been hard at work to highlight the success of English graduates, and the vital creative and critical skills they develop during their degrees.

English studies has produced leading businesspeople, politicians, and beloved artists, musicians, and writers who enrich society. They are also evolving in terms of subject matter and approaches, with tangible impacts across economic, social and cultural spheres.

Contrary to the impression that might emerge from media discourse, English studies has shown its resilience and creativity in the face of adversity.

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