Closing our English literature degree is not an attack on the humanities

We distract from the debate on the importance of the arts if we don’t review and re-energise our humanities offerings, says Chris Husbands

June 28, 2022
An old book next to an hourglass, symbolising English literature
Source: iStock

Let’s be clear from the outset – Sheffield Hallam University, one of the country’s largest, most diverse and successful universities, is committed to offering an exceptional range of courses across disciplines.

The arts and humanities are a vital part of our contribution to our students, our region and the world. Currently, we offer more than 600 undergraduate and postgraduate courses, and we decide which ones to offer based on our specialisms, our students and our structures. Government does not decide for us.

Degree courses in English are important to our mission as a comprehensive university. We are especially proud of our track record in attracting students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who deserve the opportunity to benefit from the breadth and depth of skills that a humanities course provides. We are proud of our graduates’ contribution to Sheffield and its region’s thriving arts and cultural sectors. All this matters because of our institutional mission to transform lives through an applied and comprehensive offer.

We are looking forward to welcoming new students this September in English literature, English and creative writing programmes. These courses are open for recruitment, and our students will benefit from a highly engaging academic experience, which will help them develop a set of skills that are rewarding and relevant, coupled with a supportive and vibrant learning environment. Placements and work experience are a core component of our offer, with our humanities students benefiting from exposure to on-the-job experience at leading cultural events, as well as within iconic institutions such as Sheffield Theatres and Sheffield Museums.

Our commitment is genuine. But, as a large institution, we also have a responsibility to continuously review our portfolio offer – to ensure it is as rich, relevant and responsive as it can be to students’ and employers’ demands in the local and national landscape. All institutions reflect on and review their offers.

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

Our relatively modest portfolio revision has been conflated with broader national concern about the government’s attitude to the arts and humanities. As a university leader – and one with a humanities degree – I am passionate about defending and protecting arts and humanities in our universities, our cultural institutions and our society. Sheffield Hallam has long argued against a narrative that assesses the value of a degree based purely on economic metrics such as future salaries. We educate individuals to thrive in a complex world. We integrate academic and applied learning across our entire portfolio.

The arts and humanities need defending and they need advocates. Too often, policy underplays their importance. But we distract from the debate on the importance of the arts if we don’t review and re-energise our humanities offerings. We need to counter the perennial questioning of the value of the arts in certain pockets of society by remaining firm in our commitment to fostering graduates who can thrive. Sometimes that requires a change of approach, but not a change in commitment.

Sir Chris Husbands is vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University.

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Reader's comments (3)

Excellent article by Chris Husbands. Clear ethical leadership. Original article by THE needed balance and depth.
A very clear and helpful article from Sir Chris highlighting the natural evolution and life cycle of academic development. Across the country universities review academic and research programmes in order to enhance quality, improve relevance by engaging with staff, students, employers, professional bodies and funders. This is not new. Academic review, reflection, adjustment , enhancement and sometimes root and branch changes are necessary to ensure our provision remains vibrant, engaging, valued, attractive and of high quality meeting the needs of multiple stakeholders and delivering value in its broadest sense. This is how we develop and advance new modules and programmes and how we ‘retire’ old ones. Closing modules or programmes that are no longer meeting the needs is not the issue as we refresh disciplines and subject areas. Our focus is on how we advance and protect the rich diversity of disciplines and subjects that students want to study and can access across our universities. Any decision to close a programme is never taken lightly. It requires detailed consideration and planning as the programme runs out over a three to four year period. The student experience, when it happens, being prioritised and protected over that period. We can only achieve this if the funding and staffing base for our universities is secure, sustainable and appropriate to support the delivery of the highest quality experience for all of our students. Unfortunately over the next few years we will see universities having to make difficult decisions as they balance staffing expertise, quality, finances, student demand, and breadth of academic and research offer against strategic priorities and missions. None of this is easy but it will be necessary to sustain and advance our diverse world leading university sector.
Managed change is at the heart of all institutions that want to survive and prosper. Those that refuse to change at all, wither and die. When I was at University in the 1960's, it was the subject of theology that was under pressure and the Classics, Latin and Greek were also becoming less popular. This has been followed by reductions in the number of students studying European languages, history, geography and English. To make room for the new, part of the old has to be removed. On balance, progress is made towards a better world.

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