The unkindest cut? – Behind the paring of the humanities
The announcements by Roehampton and Wolverhampton universities that they are drastically cutting their humanities departments, and by Sheffield Hallam University that it is reducing the number of English BA honours programmes, have triggered a storm of criticism.
Dame Mary Beard, the famed classicist and author of 19 books, including last year’s Twelve Caesars: Images of power from the ancient world to the modern, spoke for many when on 23 July she tweeted that Roehampton’s cuts are “worse than sad. It is about a wider erosion of the humanities in the new unis (and ones which have done huge amounts for a new style of classics/humanities, inclusivity etc etc).”
In an email statement provided to University World News, Jo Grady, general secretary of Britain’s University and College Union, called Sheffield Hallam’s announcement a “shock”.
“It is depressing but seems a part of a wider agenda being forced on the universities by governments against the arts and humanities. Decisions like this and at other universities, such as Huddersfield and Wolverhampton, will be hugely damaging for access, creating geographical cold spots as many courses are dropped.
“The universities most vulnerable are those with the higher number of less well-off students and it is unconscionable to deny them the chance to study subjects like literature, art, drama and music,” she said.
Faculty positions at risk
The axe that fell at Roehampton on 1 July was unsheathed two months earlier when the administration told the university’s union that programmes would have to close and that more than 200 faculty positions were at risk.
A few days later, another post-1992 university (universities created out of polytechnics or central universities), Wolverhampton, announced that to address its £20 million (US$24 million) deficit, it too would be closing programmes and that more than 200 professors would, therefore, lose their jobs.
Next came Sheffield Hallam’s announcement that it was paring its four honours BA English programmes by half, though, significantly, this post-1992 university did not announce impending job losses.
At Roehampton, the closing of the arts and humanities programmes – including classics, history, drama, creative writing, photography and philosophy – has resulted in 226 professors, approximately half of the school’s faculty, either having their jobs terminated or being entered into the Mutually Agreed Resignation Scheme (MARS).
At the same time, Roehampton announced that, depending on their qualifications, professors who lost their jobs could apply for 64 new positions. As of this writing, it is unclear how many professors have been rehired or what course offerings will be available to students who elect to finish their degrees at Roehampton.
When asked for an interview, Senior Account Manager at Four Communications Nick Richardson replied by email on 8 July to say that since the “programme of change is currently ongoing, we’re not able to discuss the programme course offerings or provide further information at this moment”.
The email that Mags Winthrop, Wolverhampton’s digital PR and communications manager, sent University World News on 29 July in reply to a request for an interview to discuss the reported closing of the university’s arts and humanities programmes began by stating: “We are not suspending humanities courses.”
Winthrop’s email included a 22 May statement from Interim Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Campbell in which he begins by saying: “The University of Wolverhampton is committed to ensuring an excellent student experience and creating opportunities that enhance the lives of our graduates and wider communities. This will always be at the very heart of what we do.”
After outlining the reasons for the university’s financial crisis (see below), perhaps anticipating the wave of criticism to come, Campbell got off the first shot.
“The decline in demand [for arts programmes] nationally and regionally means that some courses are unfortunately not feasible for September 2022 recruitment because of the very small numbers of students that have applied and we now need to work on what a sustainable arts offer looks like.
“We continue to be committed to the arts, and opened a new £5 million [US$6 million] Screen School in Wolverhampton earlier this year, dedicated to regional upskilling and nurturing the talent of tomorrow in subjects such as animation, computer game design, film and television production and multimedia journalism.”
Six weeks later, Wolverhampton suspended enrolment in 138 humanities courses.
No professor from Wolverhampton agreed to be interviewed for this story. Nor has the university announced how the remaining arts and humanities courses will be structured. It remains unclear how professors will ultimately lose their jobs, though according to the Express & Star, by early July, 100 professors had agreed to MARS.
Wolverhampton’s local paper also reports that both undergraduate and graduate level courses have been cut.
Scrapping the enrolment cap
The root of the financial crisis faced by these and other universities can be traced back almost a decade to the decision in 2013 by then prime minister David Cameron’s government to abolish the cap on university enrolment. In his autumn statement that year, George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, billed this change as helping disadvantaged young people who were being frozen out of higher education because of the cap.
“Each year, around 60,000 young people who have worked hard at school, got the results, want to go on learning and want to take out a loan to pay for it are prevented from doing so because of an arbitrary cap,” he said.
(The decision to increase university enrolment was also a way to allow each university to address another looming crisis: the drop in the number of 18-year-olds because of the low birth rate at the start of the century.)
Notwithstanding Osborne’s claims about wanting to help disadvantaged young people go to university, critics charged that Cameron’s Tory government was restructuring higher education along neo-conservative lines that emphasised competition among universities.
In an interview with The Guardian in August 2014, Liam Byrne, the shadow universities minister, summed up Osborne’s plan as “dog-eat-dog university competition”.
According to Dr Shelley Trower who, before recently taking voluntary separation, was head of the English and creative writing department in the school of humanities and social sciences at Roehampton, this competition disadvantaged the post-92 group of universities and privileged the Russell Group of top research universities, including Oxbridge.
“Uncapping the number of places has led to unregulated competition among universities, which is what the conservative ideology tends to favour,” she says.
Not long after the Russell Group of universities began, as it were, to fish in Roehampton’s, Wolverhampton’s and Sheffield Hallam’s regional ponds – the vast majority of their students are local – the numbers of secondary students taking A-Level English courses, the prerequisite for applying to most university English programmes, nosedived.
In 2016, 22,980 males took A-Level English, while in 2021 the number was 15,035, a drop of 34%. The percentage decline among female students was less dramatic, 23%, but since more female students (61,730) took the A-Level English in 2016, the drop in the number of female students taking this course was almost the same at 14,770. As compared with 2016, in 2021, there were almost 23,000 fewer students enrolled in A-Level English.
(Arguments for why there has been such a large drop include criticism of the ‘canonical’ books studied, teaching methods used, cultural issues and a perceived disconnect between A-Level English and careers after university. A 2020 survey by the National Association for the Teaching of English found that 58% of teachers who taught A-Level English did not think that their students found the course rewarding.)
The compounding effects of COVID
The effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on enrolment turned a growing problem into a crisis.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly increased costs to the university,” wrote Wolverhampton’s Campbell. “While at the same time, like many similar universities, our enrolments have been falling with the associated loss of income. This has been compounded by difficulties around overseas travel impacting international students during the pandemic.”
According to Dr Charles Mundye, Sheffield Hallam’s head of the department of humanities, college of the social sciences and arts, the decline in the number of students graduating with A-Level English and dislocations to the university enrolment ecosystem caused by COVID negated the fact that the university-aged cohort is no longer declining.
“We’ve hit the bottom of that curve. But it coincided with the fall in numbers of students studying English. But that’s not the only consideration. The pandemic has caused others. A number of universities with, if you like, very high-profile reputations in English studies were not able to recruit as many international students as they would normally do,” he told University World News.
“So, they changed their behaviours and recruited far more English students than they might otherwise have done.”
Taken together, these trends produced a perfect storm that has so reduced the number of English majors at Sheffield Hallam that keeping four BA honours had become “unsustainable”.
The criticism of these universities for drastically reducing their portfolios of English and humanities courses has been trenchant.
In her Times essay (29 June), Melanie Phillips recalls Matthew Arnold’s belief that the antidote to the materialism aborning in the industrial world of Victorian England was exposure to “the best that has been thought and said” and quotes the late (Hegelian conservative) philosopher and aesthetician, Sir Roger Scruton, who said that “the culture of a civilisation is the art and literature through which it rises to consciousness of itself and defines its vision of the world”.
The part of her argument which suggests that the pathway for “cultural vandal” who cut humanities and English degrees was paved by scholars who since the 1970s have highlighted the many shortcomings of Western culture, is Phillips’ capsule history tracing the triumph of “brute utilitarianism” – that is, the view that higher education exists to serve the economy – to Charles Clarke because, unlike the scholars who questioned the triumphalist story of Western culture, Clarke actually had political power. He was secretary of state for education and skills from 2002 to 2004 in Labour prime minister Tony Blair’s government.
In a 2002 speech, Clarke rejected “education for its own sake” and poured scorn on “the medieval concept of the university as a community of scholars seeking truth” by asking why the state should fund such an enterprise.
Academics across disciplines have been quick to condemn the cuts, as the South London News reported on 25 June. An archaeologist tweeted: “Roehampton University has always had an excellent reputation in humanities. Good teaching, good research, students go out into the world [and] make it a better place. Courses like this help us understand our world, our past, ourselves. Axing them is incredibly short-sighted.”
A professor from the University of York tweeted that Roehampton “did an amazing job making humanities degrees accessible to a diverse group of students, including many from disadvantaged backgrounds. What we are seeing here is a heart-breaking reversion to a world where the less privileged are again educationally excluded”.
After noting that the fictional character, the feisty orphan Tracy Beaker, is the creation of the former Roehampton chancellor Jacqueline Wilson, Dr Tim Atkins, a senior lecturer in the Roehampton University school of humanities and social sciences’ Research Centre for Literature and Inclusion, used his poetic licence to merge literature and real-world concerns.
“Where,” he asked in letter published in The Guardian on 1 July, “will thousands of Tracy Beakers go now that the assault on working-class universities and the range of opportunities they provide is taking place all over the country?”
For her part, Shelley Trower told University World News that Roehampton “traditionally has the less privileged or less traditional kinds of students, which we have become very good at teaching; the kind of student who often comes in needing to learn a lot, perhaps needing to learn the ropes of university study – so they come a long way to gain their first degree,” she says.
Roehampton is in a poor section of southwest London and contains a large amount of council housing and a majority of the university’s students are members of minority groups.
Atkins’ and Trower’s concerns were echoed in a letter published in The Times on 29 June by the best-selling author Anthony Horowitz, CBE, an honorary associate professor at Roehampton.
“The majority of students at Roehampton are drawn from the local area and constitute working-class and ethnically diverse young people. When they return to university in September, they are going to find many of their lecturers, supervisors and academic guidance tutors gone, their own opportunities blighted,” he wrote.
Noting the changes in Sheffield Hallam’s portfolio of courses, Horowitz continued: “These are the stirrings of a very cold wind blowing from government. Are we really going to be comfortable in a society that has decided that subjects that promote critical thinking, the beauty of language in literature and which have helped develop the careers of writers such as [the playwright James] Graham and myself, should in the future be reserved for a privileged elite?”
If anything, Sarah Perry was even more trenchant. As The Guardian reported on 27 June, the bestselling author of Melmoth and The Essex Serpent, said: “I suspect this is only the latest symptom in the disease creeping across education at all levels, in which learning has been stripped of everything but the most utilitarian aims, designed to form minds into nothing but cogs in the capitalist machine. It’s dismal and dehumanising, and I’m afraid its effects will be far-reaching.”
A ‘seat for everyone’ who qualifies
In its detailed statement, the British Musicians’ Union reiterated the University and College Union’s criticism that these cuts will fall disproportionately on first-generation students.
Wolverhampton’s performing arts students are largely from the West Midlands (65%) and largely first-generation students (70%). As did many critics, the Musicians’ Union drew a straight line from Wolverhampton’s claim that it wants to focus on “skills led” learning, which includes “greater levels of engagement with employers”, and the government’s statements about higher education “preparing students for the job market and mov[ing] away from what it [the government] describes as ‘low value’ courses,” including music and the arts.
This criticism rubbishes the education minister’s claim that the government is staying true to the spirit of the 1963 Robbins Report. In it, the Committee on Higher Education, chaired by the London School of Economics professor Lord Lionel Robbins, called for the expansion of Britain’s university system so that there would be a seat available for all who qualified for post-secondary education.
As did many education reports of the period (for example, the 1968 Hall-Dennis Report into primary and secondary education in Ontario, Canada), Robbins wrote that a properly balanced university provided: “instruction in skills; the promotion of the general powers of the mind so as to produce not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women; to maintain research in balance with teaching, since teaching should not be separated from the advancement of learning and the search for truth; and to transmit a common culture and common standards of citizenship.”
Phrases like ‘low value’ and ‘skills led learning’ belong more to the ethos of the Browne Review, published in 2010, than to the Robbins Report. The Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance paid lip service to the idealistic statements about education of the Robbins Report.
But, at the heart of this report are business ideas and language that would not have been out of place in John Browne’s office at British Petroleum before he was created Baron Browne of Madingley.
Browne and the other commissioners viewed higher education as something akin to a natural resource or economic strategy like low taxes.
“[G]raduates are more likely to be employed, more likely to enjoy higher wages and better job satisfaction … Higher education helps produce economic growth, which in turn contributes to national prosperity.”
The commission, likewise, viewed students as consumers to be chased by universities seeking ever greater market share. “Our proposals are designed to create genuine competition for students between institutions,” the report declared.
Making the best of a bad hand
While Sheffield Hallam has declined to provide University World News with the number of students they expect to enrol in their new BA honours courses, Mundye did make himself available for a long Zoom interview in which he pushed back against Phillips’ claim, as he puts it, that the suite of changes going forward at Sheffield Hallam “leads to the decline of Western civilisation”.
Rather, he argued that Sheffield Hallam is making the best of a very bad hand dealt to it by government decisions and by the COVID pandemic. More than once, he reiterated that after collapsing its four BA honours into two, Sheffield Hallam will still have twice as many such degrees as the University of Cambridge.
Mundye also rejected the premise behind my suggestion that fewer poems, plays, short stories and novels would be studied in either of the two new English courses than in the standalone English literature bachelor’s programme.
“I’m not sure that it does necessarily follow. Partly because of the course, there are areas of language studies such as stylistics, which do look at literary texts. There are ways in which you might teach creative writing, as we often do, in which we are thinking about what is contemporary, where we are requiring our students to engage with text in order to think about how they might write themselves.”
After noting that there are many pieces of the curriculum puzzles that have not yet been put into place, he added: “Although I see the logical import in what you are saying, I certainly wouldn’t want to measure the value of an English degree by the number of books read.”
Nor, Mundye averred, should English studies be preserved in the aspic of his or my memory of our undergraduate days when we “were reading four door-stop novels” each week.
Given the cacophony about using Critical Race Theory in America’s university lecture halls – this autumn, Texas will add its name to the list of states that either explicitly ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory or implicitly restricts it – it was surprising to hear Mundye’s next point.
“Because the world changes, the way in which we use texts is different; certainly [it is] for young people. We absolutely have to be alive to what runs through all of our English revision… [it] is very much a sense of what are the contemporary and urgent issues. We focus on strands of social justice, of the environment, of experimentalism. When we read 18th and 19th and 20th century literature,” he says, “we are looking at really urgent issues around race, critical race theory, and race and literature.”
In defending Sheffield Hallam’s plans and English and humanities courses in general, Mundye moved effortlessly between reminding me that (the now outgoing) prime minister Boris Johnson has a humanities degree – classics from Balliol College, Oxford, which has given the comedian Tom Walker, in his persona as the fake newsman Jonathan Pie, some of his best material on Johnson – and listing off the senior administrators at Sheffield Hallam who also have humanities degrees, to sketching out the economic argument for the humanities.
“In the UK in 2019, the creative industries generated £115.9 billion [US$140 billion] for the UK economy. That’s 5.9% of our economy, to which English studies makes a significant contribution.”
For 30 years, I was an English professor at Algonquin College in Ottawa, one of Ontario’s 27 colleges of applied arts and technology. English language and literature instruction served the various programmes’ needs.
For example, in the interior design BA programme, the world literature course I taught was, in addition to the predictable learning aims of an advanced English course, designed to sensitise students to the aesthetics of countries outside North America. Accordingly, I found Mundye’s argument defending the purity of English studies familiar.
This romantic notion ends up, he says, “defending the right of students to study subjects that they somehow perceive as ‘too good’ to be bothered about things like economic productivity. Or we have to defend the rights of students to be poor and sit in a garret apartment and not have very much money until they produce this work, a wondrous thing, after five years.
“For some students, of course, in English or indeed in any subject, that will be their life choice, but not for all. You can’t take a whole cohort through on the basis that they’re going to do that.”
From theory to practice
The devil remains in the details, which have not yet been worked out (or, at least, have not been published) by any of these four universities. Mundye’s willingness to be interviewed sets him apart from his counterparts at the other universities.
From my own experience, supervising students on work placements from Algonquin’s professional writer’s programme, I know that bridging the space from literary or historical knowledge as traditionally taught and learned and practised in the field will require a deft hand to avoid work placements becoming rote exercises or, worse, packets of free labour for the hosting institution.
Mundye’s pride in the work placements we discussed was obvious. After engaging with stakeholders in the community, English students have run community book clubs while film studies students have run festivals for community organisations. Other humanities students have worked in Sheffield’s museums, theatres and city archives.
One history student was commissioned by a family to produce a genealogy that explained the family’s ancestor who was a black German. The student translated original documents from Germany and “put together this extraordinarily professional genealogical package” that included family artefacts that was displayed in the City of Leicester library. Still another student had productive exchanges with the Royal Mint while working on his undergraduate dissertation on the history of coins.
A final word on class
Trower was the last person I interviewed for this article. While speaking with her, I asked: “Given the significant contribution English and the other humanities make to the British GDP, why has there been no move by Minister for Skills, Further and Higher Education Andrea Jenkyns to help the post-92 universities maintain their offerings? Or, to put it another way, what explains what critics say is the effect of the government’s decision to have universities compete?”
Undergirding her answer is an aspect of English life that foreigners are apt to miss: the way Britain’s major universities are enmeshed in the British class system.
It’s okay for graduates of Oxbridge to be trained in critical thinking – their education gives them the ability to criticise the government – because by going to Oxbridge you’re likely to become one of the elite.
By being at Oxbridge, even for those kids who didn’t have enough food growing up, you’re more likely to interact with students who went to public [independent private] schools. And, therefore, you are more likely to adopt their values, she says.
“Things are very different at Roehampton where identities are much more diverse and many students are first generation and are not products of the public school system.”