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What’s really happening with English lit at Sheffield Hallam University?

Is the ability to study English literature coming to an end in all but the most elite end of the sector? Jim Dickinson gets behind the headlines
This article is more than 1 year old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

When a Twitter thread from an academic at Sheffield Hallam University appeared on 25 June 25, it’s doubtful that its author knew it would end up getting 16,000 likes, over 5,000 retweets, extensive media coverage and a response from the minister for further and higher education.

The first tweet in the thread had claimed that the English literature degree at Sheffield Hallam was being “suspended”, and that the university was responding to government which, it was claimed:

…will no longer fund degrees where 60 per cent students don’t end up in “highly skilled” jobs within 6 months.

When the Telegraph picked up the story, the academic was quoted as arguing that the restriction was a 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”.

The problem was that much of this wasn’t really true.

When you go down to the woods today

There isn’t any current proposal – from government or from its “arm’s length” regulator – to stop funding degrees where 60 per cent of students don’t end up in highly skilled jobs within six months.

The B3 proposal on the table from the Office for Students – and it is still a proposal – is that undergraduate subject areas whose full-time, first degree students achieve a progression (to highly skilled employment or further study) rate of 60 per cent or less be subject to regulatory action – which in most cases should result in a university taking steps to get back above that line.

In the measure, proposed progression will count positively if a student has progressed to further study at any level, or to managerial or professional employment, at the GO census date 15 months after they were awarded a higher education qualification – not 6 months.

And the proposal on the table from DfE – and it is still a proposal – is that some subject areas in these sorts of scenarios be subject to student number controls.

Technicalities, you might argue – the direction of travel is clear. But the stranger aspect of the story was that a glance at OfS’ proceed figures revealed a progression rate of 70 per cent for English Studies – well above that OfS proposed minimum. And for the actual degree rather than the broader subject area, DiscoverUni had the progression rate at 90 per cent.

So what on earth was going on?

Recruitment, not value

The original response from the Hallam press office – which may or may not have been edited by the Telegraph – appeared to confirm the story:

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.

But on the same day that the Telegraph had picked it up, the department had tweeted something of a clarification:

From 2023, we’ll be continuing to offer Literature study within our broad-based English degree, staffed by our team of leading researchers, which allows students to shape their own exploration of the subject across Language, Literature and Creative Writing.

Then a couple of days later, Hallam vice chancellor Chris Husbands took the university’s blog to expand on that explanation:

We have made some changes to our English literature provision from 2023. It will remain part of a broad-based English degree which features language, literature and creative writing. To be clear, there are no job losses as a result of this change. There are many large, successful universities, including, for example the University of Cambridge, which offer a single route into the breadth of an English degree. It reflects our commitment to continuously update and improve our provision to provide the best possible learning offer for our students.”

Nevertheless, Phillip Pullman led an outcry, saying that the study of English literature “should not be a luxury for a wealthy minority of spoilt aesthetes.” James Graham, the playwright behind the BBC television drama Sherwood, said he would not have become a writer if an English degree had not been available. Op-eds proclaimed things like “the move to drop English literature is just the start of a wider war against creativity”. Anthony Horowitz warned that the subject risks being “reserved only for a privileged elite”.

Efficiencies of scale

Without being behind the scenes and having the recruitment numbers to hand, it appears to be fairly obvious what’s going on here. In a recruitment market which is choppy, the university is protecting its ability to respond to fluctuations in demand by merging English Lit into a wider English degree where students can gather modules.

There are open questions that surround whether students who want to study English lit at Hallam will still have the same breadth of module choice in English literature specifically by the time we get to AY 2026/27. But this sort of thing has been happening all over the country as an alternative to programme closure – when you merge the modules into a more generalist degree, you can cope with the ups and downs of recruitment by doing what they used to call “unit farming” in further education.

For example – when I was an undergraduate in the mid to late 90s (the low point in the value of the unit of resource over the past 50 or so years), my cultural and media studies degree first year involved choosing from a range of broader humanities modules, and accidentally allowed me to have a great geography field trip and to chat ideas with a philosopher whose own programme had under-recruited.

This kind of breadth is likely to be good for students, but it would be better for the sector if it was planned and deliberate rather than a reaction to the fluctuating demand of the market.

Less desirable is the practice I’ve seen across the country that responds to falling demand for a specialist degree, that involves taking a range of specialist modules and replacing them post-redundancy with opportunities for students to still self-study those specific issues or authors or periods with more generic academic help.

Collapsing the specialist into the generic also allows a “don’t replace” policy to work when staff retire or leave, allows a round of voluntary redundancies without triggering “student protection plan” course closures and allows staff teams to be deployed more flexibly on stuff like supervision tasks. It also makes a “course” less vulnerable to (patchy participation in) industrial action. So in all those cases, we may well be in Trigger’s broom/Theseus’s ship territory.

Ultimately, while the Hallam case wasn’t all it seemed, unless we place number caps on the “top end” of the league tables, we’re going to end up with more and more of a squeeze on some degrees in other parts of the tables. That will inevitably lead to a restriction of choice if you were depending on attending a university nearby – which surely more students will do as the cost of living crisis bites.

2 responses to “What’s really happening with English lit at Sheffield Hallam University?

  1. Thanks for digging into the nuance of what is happening. Something that might be of interest is to look into what else is being closed/suspended. As far as I can tell, a lot of courses are affected across the university – humanities and beyond – of which English Literature has got the media attention. Academics at the university, including I’ve seen it claimed the UCU branch committee, cannot get a full list of closures and suspensions from the university. Course leaders of suspended courses are going to their line managers to find their line managers don’t know the suspension is happening. And no one – up to and including course leaders of affected courses – can get to see the evidence on which these decisions were made, evidence that apparently includes but is not limited to an analytics report from a company called DataHE. The direction of travel certainly feels like shutting things down/merging things as a prelude to later job losses, and the secrecy around the process adds to worry/anxiety. A piece about how universities can best work through these sorts of maneuverers (without hiding info from or alienating their staff) might be good, and something about the power held by data analytics companies in these sorts of decisions.

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