Opinion

The loss of humanities courses like English literature will leave education in a poorer place

Sheffield Hallam University's decision to suspend its English Literature course is a financial one – but the true value of the arts can't be measured in money, writes Big Issue editor Paul McNamee.

Photo: Unsplash

On a recent trip back to my parents’ house my mother presented me with a load of papers. They were in a box that hadn’t been opened in 30 or so years. It wasn’t really a sentimental presentation. It was part of a clearout, and if I didn’t take it the binmen would.

It was a collection of things I’d amassed through my teenage years and as I was leaving school. There were yearbooks, a newspaper that some friends and I had made (we were VERY angry at Brian Mawhinney, then minister in the Northern Ireland Office) and a lot of poetry. It is quite something to read your angsty teenage poetry, raging at a lot of things and obviously having read too much Seamus Heaney. For the most part it should not have been kept at all, never mind for over 30 years.

There were also essays detailing the books I was reading, peppered with what I clearly thought were incredible insights. Such distance of time makes you feel like you’re greeting a stranger, a slightly earnest and pretentious one you’re not too sure about at first. Thomas Hardy got a kicking, Sam Selvon was loved, as were Arthur Miller and Samuel Beckett. In a home with few books, reading clearly meant a great deal. I suddenly remembered this. The books came from libraries or were passed on by teachers. A new world seemed possible.

And now, here we are, in a world where the possible is closing. Sheffield Hallam University is suspending its English Literature course from next year. They claim there is a lack of demand, that students are becoming unwilling to take courses that don’t offer a route to highly paid jobs.

I don’t blame Sheffield Hallam University for making their choice. But there is something wrong when that decision has to be made. And they are not going to be the only university making that assessment.

It does feel like third-level education is at a crossroads. It was heading there before Covid, and now that has accelerated. Colleges that aren’t blue chip, or Russell Group, are having to make difficult financial decisions. I haven’t seen any Oxbridge college announce a course squeeze yet. And I’m still not totally clear what vocational skills the vaunted PPE degree carries.

On the other side, I understand why students are moving to vocational courses. They are being saddled with debt, a future that offers low-paid jobs and a housing market that feels more and more closed off. Staring at that future, it is understandable if they turn from certain courses, even if they’d excel at them. The casual closure of school libraries, of council libraries, and the sense that humanities don’t matter is damaging to us as a society.

Growing up in a mostly white, polarised, damaged and self-obsessed Northern Ireland of the 1980s, I had no idea of the casual, brutal racism the Windrush generation met until I read Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners. Fiction opened the door to understanding and fact, a plurality of thinking. Studying literature at university was an option I didn’t follow, but at least it existed, in any number of institutions. It wasn’t thought less of.

There are a lot of problems rushing in and on top of each other right now. Keeping a head above water is all that many can do. But we need to kick up a fuss and be angry when humanities courses are quietly closed – whether in literature, or languages, or music or any other arts. They are not for everybody, naturally. They may not offer a route to high-paid employment, though what REALLY does?

They make us see things better and with more empathy. That should not be closed off, and especially not from those who come from less privileged backgrounds.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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