Out with ye olde classics?

March 12, 2004

Will to Wonka, English is thriving but it isn't all rosy, says Claire Sanders

"Under the hot blue sky I walked with my backpack on, on through town, on until I reached the entrance to the station. I didn't keep on going because a man lay dead in the road..."

English degrees are undergoing a quiet revolution. Creative writing - such as the above by novelist Daren King, a graduate of Bath Spa University College's creative writing course - is gaining in popularity, and subjects such as children's literature and science fiction are also edging in. But traditionalists will be relieved to hear that Shakespeare continues to hold his own.

A survey of the English curriculum in universities and colleges has found that nearly 80 creative writing courses are available as options on English degrees, and a further ten are compulsory.

"The growth in creative writing courses is quite fantastic," said Philip Martin, dean of humanities at De Montfort University and former director of the English subject centre that produced the report.

"They are expanding at both postgraduate and undergraduate level - as an option within English degrees and as courses in their own right."

Last month, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service listed "imaginative writing" as the third fastest growing degree subject. The numbers are small - 1,354 applications by January 15 - but that is a 50 per cent increase on last year.

The growth is across universities. "Bath Spa University College and St Mary's College in Twickenham are as well known for their courses as the universities of East Anglia, Warwick and Bangor," Professor Martin said.

Ben Knights, director of the English subject centre and head of English and cultural studies at Teesside University, said: "It is increasingly acknowledged not only that writing is a craft that can be learnt, but also that it is very beneficial to teach students to both write and critique."

The courses are producing the goods. Mr King started writing as an undergraduate at Bath Spa and joins the likes of Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro, who learnt their craft at UEA.

A Survey of the English Curriculum and Teaching in UK Higher Education reveals what it describes as a "rich and diverse" English curriculum, with students able to study children's literature, crime fiction, science fiction, Holocaust writing and film alongside more traditional areas.

Courses on women's writing match Shakespeare as the second most popular option after late-20th century and contemporary literature.

But reports of Shakespeare's demise are much exaggerated. After English language, general linguistics and critical/literary theory, the Bard is the most common compulsory option on degree courses.

And, as well as being taught as a course in his own right, Shakespeare is often presented as part of Renaissance studies - a popular field.

Jane Gawthorpe, one of the report authors, said: "You hear a lot of grumbling about the dominance of 20th-century literature, but this is belied by the popularity and availability of Renaissance and Shakespeare courses. We can't write off Shakespeare yet."

But the survey does not paint such a rosy picture for old English. It is the most unpopular course option among students - matched only by postmodern poetry.

Professor Knights said: "Students often perceive 20th-century literature as easier than old English, largely because the texts appear simpler. This does worry me, as academic degrees should be about what is challenging."

But Elaine Treharne, head of the English department at Leicester University and chair of the English Association, cautioned against being too pessimistic.

"I carried out a survey last year that found that old English was becoming increasingly concentrated in a few departments - notably Leicester, York and King's College London.

"The students who are attracted to such courses tend to be of a high calibre and go on to do strong postgraduate work."

The subject centre survey was carried out in 2002 and 40 per cent of all English departments responded.

It found clear concern about standards from a number of department heads.

About a quarter were not satisfied with students' writing skills and a third were not satisfied with their presentational skills or originality.

Ms Gawthorpe said: "This is unsurprising given widening participation."

Academics also complained that student reading was more limited. And there was widespread concern at the decline in the numbers of mature students.

"English has traditionally recruited many mature students - often teachers keen to follow their teaching qualification with an English degree and older people taking the degree out of interest. However, as studying has become more expensive mature-student numbers have dropped across the sector," Ms Gawthorpe said.

Overall, the popularity of English as a subject is holding up.

Last month's Ucas figures showed English to be the fifth most popular subject in terms of applications for 2004 entry. English studies has seen a 6.5 per cent increase in the number of applications and has overtaken business studies, which saw a drop of 6.4 per cent. English is closing the gap on management studies, which saw a fall of 5.2 per cent.

"There appears to be a drift back to degrees with traditional currency," Professor Martin said.

He added: "The supply of places roughly matches the number of qualified applicants. Locally this produces very different effects, with some universities able to choose from a crop of highly qualified applicants, while others compete for the less qualified.

"But it would be wrong to say that new universities are losing out to old.

Certainly, here at De Montfort we have seen an increase in our applications for this year and that is with an old university down the road."

English is also largely female dominated. Women account for 75 per cent of the cohort. The survey found that 43 per cent of the academic staff were female, although women comprised per cent of professors.

claire.sanders@thes.co.uk


THE FACTS

* 3,474 English courses are listed on the Ucas website

* There are about 135 English departments in the UK

* There were 51,216 applications to English courses recorded by Ucas as of January 15 this year

* There are about 30,000 students on English degrees in the UK

* The Arts and Humanities Research Board saw a 16 per cent rise in the number of applications for English language and literature in masters degrees and doctoral research in 2003 compared with 2002.

Details: www.english.ltsn.ac.uk

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