Literary types equipped for life

August 29, 1997

In the third of our series on degrees we look at what students can expect from ancient and modern subjects

THEY MAY be more career-minded these days but students have never lost their love of literature, writes Harriet Swain.

Applications to study English remain buoyant, with more than seven applications for every place, and rising.

It is still the most popular subject at A level and attracts a large proportion of mature students. More than half of the people studying English in universities and colleges are over 21.

About 23,000 undergraduates are registered on the single honours course every year, but the popularity of the subject in combined degrees nearly doubles this figure.

Introduced to Oxbridge and the academic establishment around the turn of the century, when it was considered less intellectually rigorous than classics and therefore more suited to women, it remains an overwhelmingly female subject.

The 70/30 female/male split mirrors the divide at school level. But men comprise 58 per cent of university staff. Rick Rylance, secretary of the Council for College and University English, said this was likely to change as more women moved up the hierarchy.

He argued against the general assumption that an English degree ill equips students for a career. The latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show just 12.1 per cent of English graduates in 1995 were still seeking work six months after leaving. This compares with 12 per cent of business studies graduates.

"Students are intelligent people who are curious about the culture they live in," he said. "They perceive literary studies as dealing with important life issues and experiences." He claimed that English graduates carried knowledge of these life issues with them into employment.

Peter Barry, secretary of the English Association, said students often appeared more interested in literature than their teachers.

While current preoccupations in academic journals centred on gender, ethnicity, postcolonialism, travel writing, the body, discourse, acculturation, postmodernism and ecology, students wanted their courses to remain literature-based.

"There is a strong sense of students and tutors not being on the same cultural wave-length at all," he said.

This has been made worse by the research assessment exercise, which encouraged academics to produce monographs on fashionable subjects, such as gender and ecology, he said.

He was also worried that modularisation and the extra student choice this brought put poetry under threat because students rarely chose poetry modules.

However, creative writing modules were becoming more popular and in this, he said, new universities and higher education colleges were leading the way.

They also tended to be more imaginative about teaching literary theory, which, unlike Dr Rylance, he claimed was still a hot potato.

It is entirely up to institutions how they construct their English degree. Some courses are pure language, including the study of linguistics and philology. Others offer equal amounts of English language and literature or 90 per cent literature.

A study commissioned by the Higher Education Quality Council, due out this autumn, is investigating how far university courses differ.

It should reveal the truth behind worries that English is being merged into cultural studies and neglecting literature's historical basis. Dr Rylance argued that this was another myth. "Shakespeare is still an important element of any English course," he said.

In all, 32 English language and literature departments earned the top teaching quality rating, but only three gained a 5 star in the research assessment exercise. These were Cambridge, Oxford and University College London.

English facts

* There were 23,122 people enrolled on undergraduate English courses in 1995/96.

* Of these, 2,332 were from overseas, the majority (1,446) from other European Union countries.

* By June this year there were 55,257 applications to read English, more than 6,000 more than last year.

* More than seven applications are made for every vacancy.

Source: UCAS and HESA

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