English literature, journalism and humanities are among subjects under threat due to perceptions of low value in the working world. Eugenia Lim looks at why some academics still believed in the significance of maintaining these programmes and how universities are also adapting to evolving perceptions of such “irrelevant” subjects.
When a Yorkshire university announced it was pulling the plug on its English Literature degree from next year, it was met with furore. Sheffield Hallam cited “a lack in demand” as its graduates struggled to get highly paid jobs.
It was not the first UK university to do so. In fact, its decision to stop teaching the course and incorporate it into a broad-based English degree follows the University of Cumbria’s decision to do the same last year.
In a widely shared Tweet, Dr Mary Peace, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Sheffield Hallam, said the university was “responding to the government, who will no longer fund degrees where 60 percent of students don’t end up in ‘highly skilled’ jobs.” In a follow-up tweet she added: “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?”
English literature and language as an area of study in and of itself is unlikely to fade into oblivion, and it’s the UK universities Oxford and Cambridge that continue to top the QS World University Rankings by Subject in the area. Some opine, however, that it is at threat of becoming reserved just for the privileged few.
Award winning author Phillip Pullman was among the voices in the literary community to raise concerns about Sheffield Hallam’s move, telling The Guardian that the “study of literature should not be a luxury for a wealthy minority of spoilt and privileged aesthetes, but a spring of precious truth and life that every one of us is entitled to.”
You’ll never get a job
Beyond the literary scene, the arts and humanities appear to be in danger. A growing number of UK universities have slashed their humanities programmes in light of the government’s view of “low-value” degrees. In a 2021 policy announcement, the UK government said it planned to halve funding for courses in which students did not earn enough to repay their student loans five years after graduating. This led to universities such Roehampton and Wolverhampton scrapping a number of their Arts and Humanities courses, and with it further outcry online of an “all-out assault against the humanities”.
But the UK’s policy is worsening a trend that has already been taking shape for decades; that of the arts and humanities falling out of favour with prospective students. A study published by think tank Higher Education Policy Institute found the proportion of UK undergraduates enrolled in humanities courses fell to just 8 percent from about 28 percent in the 1960s.
A similar decline is taking shape in Europe, with institutions such as Copenhagen University set to cut a fifth of its humanities places next year given the higher unemployment rate amongst its graduates compared to other faculties.
Across the Atlantic, US undergraduate students seeking bachelor’s degrees at public four-year institutions were more than twice as likely to be enrolled in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics at 25.6 percent, compared to less than 10 percent for the humanities (less than 10 percent), according to a 2016 study by the American Council on Education.
Government spending will also likely shape this further, with the Biden Administration proposing billions in financial assistance towards education through the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, compared to the millions requested for the National Endowment for the Humanities for the 2022 financial year.
But a contrarian view has emerged. George Anders, author of You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a Useless Liberal Arts Education argues that a liberal arts degree can “open the door to thousands of cutting-edge jobs” and even put such graduates ahead of their peers. Anders points to the exciting tech sector, which has been producing career opportunities in fields such as recruitment, human relations, and market research which require the skills taught in the humanities.
To thrive in these areas, he writes, one must be able to communicate effectively, make persuasive arguments, and even anticipate obstacles and opportunities before they arise. Anders, who himself made the transition from a career in journalism to Senior Editor-at-large at tech firm LinkedIn, posits that a liberal arts degree provides better preparation for the demands of these newly emerging roles, compared to vocationally oriented disciplines like engineering or finance.
If anything, his position brings hope for those who choose to pursue the humanities in their undergraduate years; that it is indeed useful to earn such a degree.
One approach being taken by some universities to ensure their graduating students are employable, regardless of their specialisation, is to teach a common core curriculum that stresses interdisciplinary knowledge and skills. For an institution like the National Technological University (NTU) in Singapore, which is home to one of the top journalism and media schools in Asia, as well as the country’s first professional art school, this meant introducing an Interdisciplinary Core Curriculum. From August 2021, all new students attended mandatory classes which bear a fifth of their academic workload.
“The curriculum is aimed at imparting transferable skills such as digital literacy, and knowledge about today’s complex issues, such as sustainability and the environment,” says NTU’s Deputy President and Provost Professor Ling San.
When it was first announced in 2020, Professor Ling told the national broadsheet, The Straits Times, that the connection between employability and interdisciplinary skills is set to become more prominent in the aftermath of COVID-19. He added “Graduates with transferable skills that are portable across any industry will be able to transit through different jobs and careers in a rapidly changing and disruptive work landscape”.
At the heart of it, the university aims to expose students to skills and knowledge outside of their chosen major, Professor Ling explained. This is on top of the opportunity to pursue interests outside of their major and deepen their skills and knowledge through electives.
NTU’s interdisciplinary strategy will only be proven when those students graduate and enter the workforce, however, its existing combined efforts to “nurture future-ready students” has allowed it to reap considerable results already. Despite the challenging economic environment due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than nine in 10 students from the Class of 2020 and Class of 2021 were employed within six months of completing their final examinations, exceeding the national rate of 84 percent.
Times they are a-changing
There is a barrage of listicles that appear when searching for “useless degrees” online, many also detailing how a Journalism, Media Studies, and even a Communications degree will be a waste of time and money. For digitally literate Gen Zers who have grown up shaped by and shaping social media, going to school to learn about the days of yore in journalism can seem redundant.
This position is partly due to the “fundamental shift” in the media landscape, says Franz Krüger, Adjunct Professor of Journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. “But that doesn’t mean that journalism is disappearing.”
As much of the news industry has moved online, the money that used to fund it has gone online too. That has resulted in broadsheets closing and inevitable jobs loss.
The result, Professor Krüger says, is more journalists may be working in the gig economy in the way that artists have done for generations, from job to job, rather than a fixed position in a legacy news organisation.
Professor Krüger, a 30-year industry veteran himself, admits jobs are harder to get these days, but stresses “the social need for journalism for public information is perhaps greater than ever”. Those challenges include how a pandemic like COVID-19 is fought, how elections take place, and xenophobic violence fuelled by misinformation.
“It has real implications about the way society works,” he says.
Universities must adapt
In order to keep pace with the evolving media scene, Professor Krüger believes institutions need to constantly recalibrate their curriculum to offer students a mix of skills which they need in order to thrive. “Journalism students need to understand social media and whatever the news platforms are of the day,” he says, admitting “universities do struggle with the kind of flexibility that is required.”
Even so, he maintains that the traditional offerings of a Journalism degree remain relevant and will never go out of date. “One shouldn’t underestimate the skills of communications and what journalism schools teach and how it can be used in different contexts,” says Professor Krüger. “Communication, clear writing, discerning reliable information; those are skills that can be used in a lot of different roles.”.
Even for those who do not see a future as a full-time journalist, Professor Krüger highlights that the practical skills taught in journalism courses will be useful in different contexts such as advocacy, community media, and even for someone looking to start their own podcast.
In the face of an impending global recession, there is no doubt that prospective undergraduates might find themselves leaning toward a degree with more certain employability. The anxiety that comes with looking for a job fresh out of university is universal and understandable. “But you also have to do what you’re interested in, and you need to find a balance in that. There is no point in pursuing something that may be lucrative but bores you to tears,” says Professor Krüger.
“What is really important is to learn the skill of adaptability because over the course of a working life, you’re likely to move between roles.”
This article was from the QS Global Education News Issue 09. Download the full edition.