According to new research studying English literature at university is bad for your job prospects. Perhaps, says Sarah Freeman, but an arts degree is good for the soul.
In the summer of 1997 I left Edinburgh University after four years studying English literature. Aside from the slightly surreal graduation ceremony, which involved getting hit on the head with a cushion made from the trousers of Scottish Reformer John Knox, it felt like I had a decent degree from a prestigious university.
It turns out I was wrong. At least about my choice of course. English Literature, along with geography, history and perhaps most surprisingly of all French, has just been named and shamed as one of the new generation of Mickey Mouse degrees. Why? Because it’s amongst the least helpful when it comes to getting an actual job.
The list was compiled by the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency and while it never used the phrase ‘Mickey Mouse’, the inference was clear. If a degree doesn’t automatically lead to a full-time employment with good share options and a tidy pension, it’s hardly worth bothering.
And that depressing fact, is pretty much all you need to know as to where Britain’s further education system has gone so badly wrong.
A few years prior to filling out my UCAS form, university had been the preserve of a select few, the academically brightest in any school; the minority rather than the majority. By the early 1990s things were beginning to change. The Government had decided the university system should be open to all. It was a lovely, altruistic sentiment and anyone who disagreed was portrayed as old fashioned and elitist.
In the rush to throw open the doors of those perceived ivory towers, vocational options were downgraded and even the old polytechnics, which had traditionally specialised in more practical courses, were rebranded as universities. Sixth forms began to swell and while entry to the redbrick universities remained fiercely competitive, others began waving the offer of a degree under the nose of anyone who had a U in maths and a ring binder.
There was no going back.
As the numbers going to university rocketed and as the range of courses to meet the demand mushroomed, successive Education Secretaries agreed that the dream of democratising degrees had worked.
Under the weight of the growing undergraduate population, the old model proved unsustainable. The Government funding which had once allowed universities to tick along nicely quickly began to creak. In 1997, less than a year after announcing New Labour’s manifesto would be based on the mantra education, education, education and just days after moving in to Number 10, Tony Blair ushered in tuition fees.
Early fears their introduction might put off all but the poorest students haven’t (yet) materialised. In fact in 2014, a record 225,000 18 year olds accepted a full-time place at university. However, their introduction resulted in something arguably far more damaging. It turned academia into a commodity.
Alongside the HESA’s league table of so called ‘useless’ degrees, plans are now afoot to force universities to publish the amount of time students spend in classes with a teacher alongside their average graduate earnings.
It’s almost certain that the arts will come off badly. If memory serves me right I had between nine and 12 hours of formal teaching time a week. That was fine back in the pre-tution fee age, but when the same £9,000 a year will buy a lab-intensive degree in medicine or engineering, suddenly reading books starts to look like a very expensive way to get a few letters after your name. And yet, reducing the value of any degree down to how much of it is spent in a lecture hall helps no one.
I probably owe Dr Sarah Carpenter a belated apology. Her classes on medieval English were at the crack of 9am on a Thursday morning on the other side of town. Beowulf was rarely compatible with the indie student night round the corner from our flat on a Wednesday where alcopops flowed like nectar. And every now and again I still feel a tinge of guilt about the amount of reading the only mature student on our course did.
Frank had retired from an office job a few years earlier and having been forced to leave school after O-levels spending hours in the library never felt like a chore. He earned the standing ovation he got when he went up to collect his degree, but most of us had also learnt more than we probably ever realised back then.
For a girl from East Leeds, most of whose classmates either had parents who hailed from the same village in County Mayo or who had LS15 running through them like a stick of rock, university was my first chance to see another little bit of the world.
It was in Edinburgh that I first met people who owned their own ski boots (an impossible luxury), it was from there that I hitch-hiked to Amsterdam and back with a medical student I’d only known for a couple of hours and it was there in the student’s union where I first fell in love.
There were other things too.
It was thanks to that English Literature degree that I realised it was ok to admit to reading poetry for pleasure rather than to just pass exams and that being a bit bookish was something to be celebrated not embarrassed about.
Have I put my once in depth knowledge of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or the Freudian reading of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream to good use since then? Aside from impressing with the answer to the odd quiz question probably not.
These days I’d also struggle to offer up a coherent definition of the post-modernist literature which formed the basis of my dissertation, but what I do know is that those four years in Edinburgh flicked a switch. By the time I put on that graduation gown I had also taken the first steps into a bright, exciting world and it was one which thankfully wasn’t ruled by how many noughts you get on your monthly pay cheque.
It’s almost certain that either this year or next tuition fees for some universities will rise beyond the current annual £9,000 limit. In the HESA’s depressingly titled Success as a Knowledge Economy report, there’s also talk that companies like Facebook and Google could launch their own in-house degree courses.
It’s a move business experts say is vital if Britain is to compete on the world stage. They’re right. We need people skilled in digital technology and we need our own Mark Zuckerbergs. But we also need people who pen plays, write books and create art. We need people who know how to dream a little.
If we end up believing the lie that learning for learning’s sake has no value we might as well all give up. Personally I’m glad I’ve got a Mickey Mouse degree. Those four years with my head in the clouds and a nose in a book were the best I’m ever likely to have.