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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Flatlining University Applications in English Studies

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Higher Education Statistics Agency has just released details of undergraduate numbers for 2009 to 2010. These are important, because they give some indication of how different subjects will fare as tuition fees increase next year. According to The Guardian's dissection of the data, the headline news is a big increase in numbers of students applying for maths, business and engineering degrees compared to five years previously:
Mathematical sciences recorded the biggest percentage increase on the previous year as 26,225 students opted for the subject in 2009/10 - a 26.3% increase on 2005/06.
Business & administrative studies, mass communication & documentation, and engineering & technology saw the biggest rises after mathematical sciences for full-time undergraduate students.
This seems to bode well for the government's (misguided) hope that a market in tuition fees will lead students to become more discerning consumers, so that they choose courses which offer them the best chance of a payback in their eventual career. Business and engineering seem to offer higher potential salaries.

Naturally, I am most interested in the possible implications for English Studies, so I went to the HESA website and grabbed the subject data for undergraduate applications. Unfortunately, previous years of data simply give the total numbers of students studying any one subject at a given time - thus it includes second and third years, rather than showing us how many first years alone applied (which is a better indicator of how new student choices are panning out). The table below shows the total number of undergraduate students (both full time and part time) opting to study English over the last five years. It also indicates the number of English students as a percentage of the total population of undergraduate students doing all subjects.

PeriodTotal UndergraduatesTotal English UndergraduatesPercentage Studying English

The obvious conclusion to draw from this is that English has been a steady subject choice for the last five years. It has not significantly gained students, but neither have significant numbers of students been put off from choosing English, despite the (false) perception that English does not offer a direct route to a specific career in the way engineering might.

However, against the backdrop of increasing overall student numbers, this stasis does not look especially promising. From 2008-2009 to 2009-2010, the total number of undergraduates increased by 3%. In that period, the number of undergraduates studying languages also increased by 3%, whilst the number of undergraduates studying English increased by 4%. Thus English looks to be doing slightly better than most of the comparable language subjects. However, it is clearly doing significantly worse than subjects like maths (9% increase) and sister subjects like communications (7% increase).

Over the previous five years of stable tuition fees, with each subject charging the same flat rate, English has just about held its own. However, we might expect it to be less robust with subsequent cohorts of students. In the immediate term, most students will be paying up to £9000 tuition fees. However, in the future, students may be able to pay reduced fees for taxpayer subsidised subjects that are perceived to be more economically necessary (such as engineering or medicine). They may not want to pay a high fee for a general subject such as English that does not, on the face of it, seem to be a pathway to an obvious career, and they may prefer to spend their money on a more applied qualification such as communication studies (which incorporates journalism, advertising and so on).

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Posted by Alistair at 9:12 am


Blogger Alex said...

(I've just graduated in English Literature and Philosophy this summer)

I understand the fears that this post expresses, but it's frustrating to see you still try and compare English with sciences in terms of its economical benefit to the student. You're trying to claim that a subject like English is equal to, say, engineering in that it opens the door to a specific job opportunity should you want it.

How can this be true? There are hardly any jobs, with the exception of academia and teaching, which are specific to an English degree. To keep on trying to judge the value of arts subjects by their immediate job prospects destroys the intrinsic value of them, of which I'm sure I don't need to outline.

By comparing English to engineering in this way does the arts a disservice. I think it would be a sad day when students chose a subject like English specifically for a job. The same goes for a subject like pure maths. There is no need for illusions like that. The step forward is to begin appreciating academic subjects for their own worth and not economic benefit, instead of this rat race for some imaginary value which would render it the best, and the weakest being left to rot.

9:28 am  
Blogger Alistair said...

Hi Alex,

Thanks for your comment. I should make clear that the perception that students ought to choose a subject based on its economic viability is certainly not my own. It is rather that of successive governments. It would certainly be a sad day (for me as a teacher, as well as for students like yourself) when students choose subjects on the basis of what job they can get at the end of it. But it is this motivation that is deep-rooted throughout government policy and rhetoric on Higher Education, and that has driven the marketisation of Higher Education. Stefan Collini's recent article in the LRB (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n16/stefan-collini/from-robbins-to-mckinsey) about which I blogged (http://thepequodblog.blogspot.com/2011/08/higher-education-fail.html) makes this point very well.

All I am saying in the present post is that on the basis of the old tuition fees model, students seem to have been continuing to study English out of free choice. We can't know for sure whether this is because they see English as a good route to a career, or whether it is because they have a genuine passion for the subject - but whatever the reasons, clearly English has been seen as being of some value, however "value" is defined by students or government. But what the figures suggest is that if the government's implementation of a HE market works as they plan it to, students will be much more discriminating, and will weigh up the cost of a degree against potential economic benefits, esteem indicators, and their personal commitment to learning in that subject. With this costly balance, based on the fact that English has not in previous years become increasingly popular but has flatlined, I am not at all convinced that students will continue to weigh commitment to learning ahead of what career they might get at the end of it.

Clearly, you and I both believe they should weight it highly. But the government would much prefer students opted for pure economics in making their choice. And with students faced with massive debts and the need to pay them off, who can blame them if they prefer subjects which offer a well-defined career pathway? Overall employment for English graduates is good (in fact, it's better than for engineering just at present). However, apart from academia and teaching there are few professions which continue to use English directly, even if the core skills are highly transferrable across different fields. Thus now that degrees are seen primarily as the route to a career, rather than something done for the sake of self-improvement and knowledge, students may well perceive this negatively in the light of the fees they will need to recoup.

I've gone over many times the problems with the HE market (see http://thepequodblog.blogspot.com/search/label/tuition%20fees). But the fact is, it is coming whether we like it or not - and on the basis of these five year statistics, the stock of English seems more likely to fall than to rise.

Thanks again for your thoughts,

9:50 am  

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