The final chapter or the start of a new volume?

Perspectives on the state of English studies around the world reveal how disciplines are vulnerable to changes in society, policy and technology

April 25, 2019
Source: Alamy/iStock

Much has been written, not least in the pages of Times Higher Education, about the changes being forced on universities by their operating environments.

In our news pages this week, new figures show how even elite universities in England are suffering major declines in student numbers in the face of increased competition.

It is worth saying that the university with the most significant decline – Southampton, which has reduced its intake by 29 per cent – claims that this has been a strategic choice.

Others, though, freely acknowledge that double-digit declines in student numbers are the result of competition unleashed by the abolition of the student number cap.

Of course, that was an active policy decision, and it was intended that there would be losers as well as winners. But the fact that some of the most respected universities in the land are among the former is a reminder that institutions of every type are affected by the change in circumstances.

While such shape-shifting in England’s radically reformed policy environment is well documented, less is written about the changes buffeting specific academic disciplines.

We have tried to address this with a series of articles we have run irregularly over the past couple of years, in which we ask scholars from a particular field to analyse the state of their discipline.

Our cover story this week offers the latest of these analyses, with academics from the UK, the US, Australia, Canada and Hong Kong offering perspectives on the state of English studies.

As one would expect, scholarship in the field is deeply influenced by the context in which it sits.

Our correspondent in Australia talks about the continuing hangover of colonial influences, and the need for the evolution of curricula to continue to “interrogate the claims of the canon itself”.

In the UK, one of our contributors argues that universities must seize the initiative and see “young people exercised by decolonisation” as a way to open out English studies.

Meanwhile, a Hong Kong-based scholar highlights the role that research funding focused on topics related to Hong Kong and China is having in reshaping the field, for better or worse.

Another major influence is change in society itself – the nature of our interactions in a digital age, changes to our culture and habits. One contributor suggests that “a course filled with triple-decker tomes is unlikely to attract big enrolments” in the age of the digital soundbite, but another takes issue with this viewpoint, claiming that the supposed demise of the serious reader is “fake news”.

Whichever view you take, it may be that deep reflection and analysis, which the study of English surely cultivates, are among the uniquely “human” skills that will serve graduates best in the years ahead.

This applies both to their personal development and to their professional prospects, with employers in even the most technical fields reporting that critical thinking and the capacity for creative approaches are most valuable to them in an era of increased automation.

Finally, the contributions remind us that disciplines, too, are vulnerable to specific policy changes.

As a contributor based at an English university explains, the decision to lift the cap on student numbers and unleash competition red in tooth and claw has had a direct impact on the field.

The policy “has meant that higher-tier universities have hoovered up undergraduates from lower-tier ones. English is cheap to teach – no labs or expensive equipment required – so it is a prime vector for quick expansion”.

A major worry about the marketisation of higher education has always been that certain disciplines would be ghettoised – that the market forces would insidiously dictate that only students from certain backgrounds studied particular subjects in certain types of university.

Changes in English studies could be a spluttering canary down the higher education mine.

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Is extinction looming?

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