Concern is mounting about the fate of the humanities in higher education after Sheffield Hallam University announced that it would be suspending its degree in English literature.
A university spokesperson confirmed that English literature is among a small number of courses which are being either suspended or closed, but said the changes would not involve job losses.
A number of universities have made cuts to arts and humanities provision after a government crackdown on what ministers regard as “low value” courses.
Under new rules, universities could face penalties if fewer than 75% of undergraduates complete their courses and fewer than 60% are in professional jobs or studying for a further degree within 15 months of graduating.
The universities of Roehampton and Wolverhampton have similarly proposed cuts, and the University and College Union (UCU) has said jobs are also at risk at De Montfort and Huddersfield.
A Sheffield Hallam spokesperson said: “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.
“Whatever students choose to study at Sheffield Hallam, they will graduate with the confidence and skills to tackle real-world problems, having had the chance to complete work experience in every year of their chosen programme of study.”
Dr Mary Peace, a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam who specialises in 18th-century literature, expressed dismay at the decision on social media.
“English lit degree at Sheffield Hallam is being ‘suspended’,” she tweeted. “University responding to government who will no longer fund degrees where 60% [of] students don’t end up in “highly skilled” jobs within six months.
“When was it ever more important in our history for young people to be able to manipulate language and to understand how they are manipulated by language and stories?”
“What kind of society will we have if there is no place for people from all social classes and backgrounds to have the chance to read and think (or to work in a bar for two years while they try to write a novel) before they have to make themselves compliant with the workplace?”
In another post, she added: “The demise of humanities in the post-92 [universities] is cultural vandalism.”
In recent years universities have experienced a slump in applications for humanities courses. According to the universities admissions service Ucas, acceptances for English studies, including English literature, decreased from 9,480 in 2012 to 6,435 in 2021.
Sheffield Hallam said arts and humanities remained a vital part of the university and added that from 2023 it would be offering English literature as part of a broad-based English degree, taking in language, literature and creative writing.
Jo Grady, the general secretary of the UCU, said: “The decision by Sheffield Hallam to shut down its English literature course is as shocking as it is depressing but seems part of a wider agenda being forced on universities by the government against the arts and humanities.
“Decisions like this and at other universities such as Huddersfield and Wolverhamptonwill be hugely damaging for access, creating geographical cold spots as many courses are dropped.
“The universities most vulnerable are those with a 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.”
Michelle Donelan, the minister for higher and further education, said the government recognises that all subjects, including the arts and humanities, can lead to positive student outcomes.
But she added: “Courses that do not lead students on to work or further study fail both the students who pour their time and effort in, and the taxpayer who picks up a substantial portion of the cost.”